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India readying Bharat NCAP for safer cars but curbing violations can make big difference too

The New Car Assessment Programme or NCAP is a standard of car-safety testing. It involves crashing a brand-new vehicle to rate it on the safety scale.

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With the safety debate gaining ground in India’s passenger vehicle market, the Narendra Modi government has decided to introduce Bharat-NCAP, the Indian equivalent of the global crash test programmes that decide how safe a car is. However, the announcement made by Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, has some key questions unanswered.

Despite being the world’s third-largest automotive market, India has not had a NCAP test system in place.

Siddharth V. Patankar, editor, Car&Bike, a leading automotive portal, and someone who has been involved with the Federation Internationale d’Automobile’s (FIA) Global NCAP activity under the auspices of ‘Safer Cars For India’, said that the process will be gradual. “NCAP tests are evolving across the world, for example the Global NCAP test from July will also include a side-impact test as mandatory. I believe that Bharat NCAP standards will be more like EuroNCAP standards from a few years ago. It will be similar to emissions, and the industry will have time to adopt these new norms.” However, Patankar was unclear about who will conduct the tests — “By NCAP’s definition from the FIA, the tests have to be carried out by an independent body or a consortia of independent bodies. For example, the US does not have an NCAP but has their cars tested by a Federal agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration but they do follow strict safety norms.”

The country’s largest carmaker Maruti-Suzuki’s Chairman, R.C Bhargava has, however, been disappointed with the announcement of these new norms. At a recent event, he expressed apprehension about the NCAP norms and hoped that they don’t become mandatory as customers should have the choice of buying cheaper cars. Bhargava added that high-ratings achieved by certain carmakers would become a marketing tool. Manufacturers such as Mahindra & Mahindra and Tata Motors have been highlighting how several of their new models have achieved five-star safety ratings for all occupants in Global NCAP tests.

“To achieve such high ratings, they did subject their vehicles to optional tests such as the side-impact test,” Patankar said, adding that the focus on safety by the two Indian manufacturers is changing perceptions of Indian buyers. But he also pointed out that “There is a criticism of the tests that manufacturers will only concentrate on the areas that are mandated by the tests, like a student only concentrates on the sections that he believes will appear for an exam. But that is why the NCAP changes every few years, with certain things being mandated in order to achieve a top-rating. Keep in mind that a car that aces a test one year could easily do poorly a few years later as the test and safety evolve.” He also warned car buyers against the fact that they should not look at the star ratings blindly: “Honestly, even many automotive writers don’t know how to read a test result. A car might have gotten three stars but can be structurally sound and could have lost points due to lacking features like ESP. At the same time, the very same car manufactured in different parts of the world could have very different NCAP results because of the steel used, or even the amount of welding points.”


Also read: VW Polo driving out of India but not before it put a smile on enthusiasts for over a decade


What is NCAP and how it works?

The New Car Assessment Programme or NCAP is a standard of car safety testing across the world. It involves crashing a brand-new vehicle where human-analogue dummies occupy the seats. And don’t let the term ‘dummies’ fool you. These dummies are extremely high-tech and have multiple sensors fitted across them. NCAP tests where the car crashes into a steel wall at speeds of 56-64 kmph are filmed by the latest high-speed cameras that can record at frame rates exceeding 10,000 frames per second. So, while the crash itself is over in a split second, multiple cameras capture not only how the car’s structure reacts but also how the occupants in it, including children dummies strapped into the rear of the vehicle.

Though, there are some things to keep in mind when reading these test results.

First and foremost, very few accidents occur like those simulated in the tests. The test is meant to simulate a slightly offset head-on collision where both vehicles are travelling at a combined speed of 64kmph, which could mean two oncoming vehicles at 32kmph each or any other combination of speeds.

Second, and this is specific to child-safety ratings, the results are only applicable if the child is seated in a certified ‘Child Restraint System’, which is technical lingo for a child seat. It also means that the driver and front passenger need to be belted-in.

Third, even if a vehicle scores highly in terms of its mechanical structure, if it lacks certain mandatory safety features, it could see its star rating go down or worse, fail the test. This has become a major issue in European countries where the new EuroNCAP tests demand that vehicles have Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) in order to be eligible for a five-star rating.

Every year, more than 150,000 people die on India’s roads. Gadkari has been working to mandate safety features on passenger cars in particular. All new cars feature speed alarms when the vehicle crosses 80kmph and an incessant alarm if the vehicle crosses 120kmph, the latter being the limit on many newer expressways such as the Peripheral Expressway in Delhi. New cars launched after mid-2022 will now feature six airbags as standard (this doesn’t apply to facelifts) and the minister is also pushing for mandatory installation of Electronic Stability Programs (ESP) as standard. This is a software that in essence tries to prevent the driver from doing anything silly with the car.

Bharat NCAP will likely force Indian automakers into a welcome ‘arms race’ on the safety front. However, we must not ignore the fact that ultimate safety is in following safe driving habits and comes down to the person behind the wheel. With rampant abuse of traffic and safety norms being the real menace in India, are we missing the woods for the trees?

@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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