In the wee hours of May 10, a crash involving a Mercedes G63 sports utility vehicle that rammed into a Metro Rail pillar in Hyderabad, ended up killing two men in their early twenties. The damage to the high-end SUV was so extensive that its gearbox torpedoed off to the vehicle’s rear on account of the impact while the airbags, which reportedly deployed, failed to save the two passengers, one of whom was the son of Andhra Pradesh’s Cabinet Minister P Narayana. The mangled front portion of the vehicle held a possible clue on why the impact of the crash was so devastating — the mangled remains of a crash bar tethered to the car’s radiator grille.
Restricted to SUVs till about a few years ago, the crash bar, which is sometimes called the bull bar or supplementary bumper, is now being fitted onto every fifth car on the road, including the smaller hatchbacks and sedans. Ironically, the unchecked proliferation of accessories such as crash bars come at a time when new safety norms laid down by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, benchmarked to the safety standards in Europe, are set to kick in from next month, safety norms that cover not just car users but specifically aim to minimise injury to pedestrians who may be hit by an automobile. The norms include the full frontal, frontal offset and side impact crash tests that will be mandatory for new cars from this October and pedestrian safety tests from October 2018.
The popularity of the crash bar is amply evident at the bustling Palika Bhavan car accessory market in central Delhi, where it is the most installed external accessory across segments.
Crash bars are more dangerous than conventional bumpers and radiator grilles, which are built to crumple on impact while crash bars do not, transmitting the full force of an impact to the occupant of the vehicle as well as other road users such as pedestrians or bikers.
But what most car owners fail to realise is that these bars can be deadly, depending on the car that it’s fitted on and the type of chassis that the car is designed on. While there are two broad chassis types — the monocoque frame that most passenger cars are built on and the body-on-frame chassis, which the bigger vehicles such as the larger SUVs have. All manufacturers typically design the safety of a vehicle, from the front bumper to the rear, alongside strategically placed crumple zones built into the frame, to essentially absorb the impact of a crash and buffer it along the bumpers and crumple zones so that the passenger cabin is insulated from the full impact.
In case of the body-on-ladder chassis, where the SUV has a distinct chassis frame and the body is separately mounted onto the chassis, the crash bar could help to some extent in distributing the impact of a crash across the chassis without impacting the body shell.
If these bars are mounted on the typical sedans and hatchbacks with the monocoque chassis, the guard is typically clamped onto the metal frame just below the radiator bed, bypassing the bumper and it’s designed impact-buffering function entirely. In the event of a major impact, the force is transmitted straight to the lower part of the car’s body and the passenger cabin can get damaged much quicker, thereby actually increasing the potential for injuries among passengers as against the expectation that they would save them.
In the EU, there are clear guidelines on the use of accessories such as the crash bar. According to the relevant rules (Directive 2005/66/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of October 26, 2005 relating to the use of frontal protection systems on motor vehicles) specifically bans “a bull bar or a supplementary bumper, which is intended to protect the external surface of the vehicle, above and/or below the original-equipment bumper, from damage in the event of a collision with an object”, with the only exemption being structures “with a maximum mass of less than 0.5 kg, intended to protect only the lights”.
In the UK, since May 25, 2007, it has been an offence for bull bars that have not been approved as compliant with those safety standards to be sold, with approved devices requiring to carry an indelible ‘e’ mark on it. A set of queries sent to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways on the issue of regulating the use of accessories such as crash bars did not elicit a response.
Crash bars were first used in Australia to avoid damage from kangaroos, which are attracted by car headlights. They were subsequently introduced in the UK, with a proliferation of four-wheel-drive vehicles in the late eighties. Research by the UK’s TRL — which was established in 1933 within the British Government as the UK’s
Transport Research Laboratory and subsequently privatised in 1996 — in Germany showed that bull bars are deadly in crashes at low speeds. Whereas 95 per cent of children would be expected to survive the impact of a normal car at 20 miles per hour (mph), a vehicle fitted with bull bars would inflict life-threatening injuries on all children it hit at 12mph and many would die even at 10mph, according to the 1993 research in Germany.
There are several other facets of safety that are either out of the purview of regulations or are in the grey zone. While there is regulation on mandatory usage of seat belts for front-seat occupants in several cities, it is not mandatory for rear seat passengers to use seat belts, even though all cars are mandatorily required to provide it as part of the original equipment. Car manufacturers have been pushing use of rear seat belts by passengers as they say that it can reduce injuries and fatalities at the time of an accident. However, in the absence of awareness or regulation for mandatory use of seat belts for rear passengers, the number of passengers using them in India is negligible.
The situation is pretty different in developed countries. According to a report of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, the rate of use of rear seat belts in 2016 stood at 36 per cent on regular roads and 71.8 per cent on expressways and it said that measures need to be taken to further encourage the rear seat occupants to buckle-up.
Lack of awareness on using of safety features in vehicles and not following of traffic rules results to high death rate in accidents in India. For example, as against total deaths of 3,904 people in 499,201 accidents in Japan in 2016, 150,785 people were killed in 480,652 accidents in India in 2016.
Every day, during 2016, 1,317 accidents took place and 413 persons were killed on Indian roads, which translates into 55 Accidents every hour that resulted in 17 deaths on a average. The most vulnerable road users killed in accidents include two wheeler riders — 52,500 or 34.8 per cent, pedestrians — 15,746 or 10.5 per cent and bicycles riders — 2, 528 (1.7 per cent).