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Compulsory front passenger airbags in vehicles likely to increase prices

The government has finally insisted on safety on the roads by making mandatory front passenger airbags in vehicles from April 1. India’s largest carmakers that have largely shunned these airbags must now act though it means an escalation in prices.

March 10, 2021 / 03:53 PM IST

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has officially stated (via Twitter) that starting April 1st, 2021, all new vehicles are to be sold with a front passenger airbag as standard equipment.

So far, the government had only mandated that a car be equipped with a driver airbag, and as such most of the bottom-end variants of entry level cars like the Maruti Suzuki Spresso, the Renault Kwid, Hyundai Santro etc all offer a driver airbag as standard, while a front passenger airbag comes as an optional extra.

Given that road accidents seldom discriminate between driver and passenger, and the pre-existing laws showed a glaring discrepancy in India’s road safety norms, the government was quick to address the issue via a gazette notification.

The rule states that all new vehicles which are to be sold post April 1st, must be equipped with a front passenger airbag, while existing models get an extended deadline till the 31st of August, 2021.

Maruti Suzuki, which has once again topped the sales charts, having sold seven out of the ten largest selling cars in India, sells all base level variants of models like the Swift, Baleno, WagonR and the Alto (the top four largest selling cars in February, 2021).

The Suzuki Swift Lxi, for example, offers front power windows as standard fitment on both front doors, however, a passenger airbag is conspicuously absent.

While road safety remains a growing concern, car safety in India has always been a magnet for loopholes and half-measures, with the largest selling cars continuously getting one or two star ratings in GlobalNCAP and EuroNCAP crash tests.

While this has allowed the brands to sell their cars at much lower costs, it has also allowed local manufacturers like Mahindra and Tata Motors to edge out their competitors on the safety front.Not only have the brands secured four star ratings at the recent GlobalNCAP safety assessment, base variants of cars like the Tata Tiago and the Mahindra KUV100 come with a passenger airbag as standard.

Even European carmakers with a strong presence in the entry-level, budget hatchback market, have been complicit in ignoring front passenger safety, as it allows them to compete with existing dominant players, selling cars at a low price point.

Road safety norms are regularly ignored on Indian roads, with several motorcycle riders attempting to ride without a helmet.Truth is that if the customers do not insist on prioritising safety, brands seldom do it on their own. It then falls on the government to implement laws forcing manufacturers to take the right call.

In this case, the report filed by the MoRTH, has been in accordance with suggestions from a road safety committee at the Supreme Court.The inclusion of a passenger airbag will see entry- level car prices go up by Rs5000-Rs9000.

This may be a steep increment for those on a tight budget, but the move by the government is a welcome one as this could bring down the alarmingly large number of on-road casualties in India.

Parth Charan is a Mumbai-based writer who’s written extensively on cars for over seven years.
first published: Mar 6, 2021 11:30 am