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Six airbags could be mandatory in your car soon, here’s why that’s a great thing

The proposal for additional airbags is to be mandated in the ‘M1’ vehicle category, with the aim of minimising the impact of “frontal and lateral collisions” to the occupants seated in both the front and rear compartments.

Written by Anil Sasi | New Delhi |
Updated: January 16, 2022 12:50:17 am
Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, airbags in cars, Nitin Gadkari, new mandate for airbags, airbags in Indian cars, airbags, M1 vehicles, India news, Indian express, Indian express news, current affairs, indian express explainedDdual airbags (driver and passenger) became mandatory on all vehicles this January. A driver airbag has been compulsory for all passenger vehicles since July 1, 2019. (Representational)

The government has approved a draft notification to make a minimum of six airbags compulsory for vehicles carrying up to eight passengers.

“In order to enhance the safety of the occupants in motor vehicles carrying upto 8 passengers, I have now approved a Draft GSR Notification to make a minimum of 6 Airbags compulsory,” Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari tweeted on Thursday (January 14).

While no specific timeline has been mentioned, Gadkari had, in August last year, urged all automakers in India to offer at least six airbags as standard equipment on all variants of each model they produce.

Incidentally, dual airbags (driver and passenger) became mandatory on all vehicles this January. A driver airbag has been compulsory for all passenger vehicles since July 1, 2019.

Which vehicles are covered by the proposed mandate on six airbags?

The proposal for additional airbags is to be mandated in the ‘M1’ vehicle category, with the aim of minimising the impact of “frontal and lateral collisions” to the occupants seated in both the front and rear compartments.

As per the proposal, airbags will be made mandatory for two side or side torso airbags, and two side curtain or tube airbags, covering all outboard passengers.

What is an ‘M1’ vehicle?

Under the government’s homologation rules, vehicles are bucketed into broad categories. ‘Category M’ covers motor vehicles with at least four wheels, used for carrying passengers. And the sub-category ‘M1’ defines “a motor vehicle used for the carriage of passengers, comprising not more than eight seats in addition to the driver’s seat”.

This categorically, therefore, effectively subsumes the bulk of the passenger vehicles on India’s roads — starting with entry-level hatchbacks such as the Suzuki Alto or Hyundai Santro to multi-utility vehicles such as the Toyota Innova or Kia Carnival. These vehicles are employed mostly for private use, alongside some commercial use by fleet operators.

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And what exactly is homologation?

Homologation is the process of certifying that a particular vehicle is roadworthy, and matches certain specified criteria laid down by the government for all vehicles that are built or imported into the country.

Tests are carried out to ensure that the vehicle matches the requirements of the Indian market in terms of emissions, and safety and roadworthiness, as laid down by the Central Motor Vehicle Rules.

But why do vehicles need more airbags?

Airbags soften the impact of collisions by keeping occupants from coming into contact with the steering wheel, dashboard, front glass, and other parts of the automobile.

Airbags are literally a question of life and death: from 1987 to 2017, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that just frontal airbags saved 50,457 lives in that country.

India’s record on road security is among the poorest in the world, and Indian cars are famously behind the curve when it comes to offering safety features.

This is especially glaring when comparisons are made with car models offered by manufacturers in other global markets, including those made by carmakers operating in India. Companies that sell the same car model in global markets choose to cut down on some key security features when they launch in India’s price-sensitive market.

What could be the challenges in implementing the proposed airbags mandate?

One of the key challenges will be pricing: more airbags as standard will inevitably drive up the cost of vehicles, including those on the budget end of the market.

A frontal airbag in an entry-level car typically costs between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000, and side and curtain airbags could cost more than double that. Most carmakers in India that do offer six airbags only do so in top end models, and in variants that cost upward of Rs 10 lakh.

Another concern flagged by manufacturers is that a number of entry-level models are specifically designed for markets such as India, and that installing additional airbags will involve considerable re-engineering, including making modifications to the body shell and the inside compartment.

The other issue flagged by manufacturers pertains to timing. The Indian auto industry is currently transitioning to stricter BS6 emission norms, and implementing the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy or CAFE norms, both of which have cost implications.

So what is the argument being made here?

Manufacturers argue that consumers get what they pay for, and very few buyers in the budget category want to shell out more for a safer car.

When Maruti Suzuki drew up the preferences of Indian car buyers — tabulated over time from enquiries made at the point of purchase — it found safety features such as ABS (anti-lock brake system) and airbags came in at a lowly eighth position, while bells and whistles such as air conditioning, power windows and central locking were much higher up.

Executives at the car company point out that driver-seat airbags were offered in the top variant of the Wagon-R, but the model had to be subsequently withdrawn due to the lack of interest among consumers.

What is the counter-argument?

Safety experts differ. They say that safety features such as twin airbags, ABS and rear wipers would only add up to Rs 25,000 to the cost of the car.

It is only because they are not mandatory, that car manufacturers provide these features only in top-end versions of cars, and bundle them with other features, thereby making the vehicle costlier by over Rs 1.20 lakh or thereabouts.

What this does in effect is deprive the Indian car buyer of a variant that has these essential safety features.

What are the rules on airbags elsewhere in the world?

In the United States, front airbags are required by law in all cars.

But most carmakers offer between six and 10 airbags, depending on the model, primarily to score higher in crash test results from agencies like the government’s National Highway Traffic Administration and the private Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

No vehicle without head-protecting side airbags has ever earned a top rating in the Insurance Institute’s side crash test.

The US government amended its Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 (FMVSS 208) way back in 1984, to require cars produced after April 1, 1989 to be equipped with a passive restraint for the driver, with an airbag or a seat belt meeting the requirements of the standard.

Airbag introduction was stimulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and was subsequently made mandatory for passenger vehicles and light trucks in 1997.

In 1998, FMVSS 208 was amended to require dual front airbags, and second-generation airbags were subsequently mandated.

Some countries outside North America adhere to internationalised European ECE vehicle and equipment regulations, instead of the United States Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

ECE airbags are generally smaller and inflate less forcefully than the airbags that are offered in the US, because the ECE specifications are based on belted crash test dummies.

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Almost every new car sold in Europe is equipped with front and side airbags. In the EU and in the United Kingdom, there is no direct legal requirement for new cars to feature airbags. But, again, most variants are equipped with at least 4-6 airbags, primarily to comply with the crash test norms and score higher on the safety count.

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