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We must demand safe roads and not just more airbags

Wreackage of the Mercedes car in which former Tata Sons Chairman Cyrus Mistry was travelling when it met with an accident in Palghar, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022. Mistry, 54, died in the accident (Photo: PTI)Premium
Wreackage of the Mercedes car in which former Tata Sons Chairman Cyrus Mistry was travelling when it met with an accident in Palghar, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022. Mistry, 54, died in the accident (Photo: PTI)

The tragic death of Cyrus Mistry drew airbags and vehicle safety features into public conversation but the menace posed by badly designed roads should be the actual focus of attention

Visuals of the accident-wrecked Mercedes Benz GLC in which former Tata Sons chief Cyrus Mistry and his friend Jehangir Pandole lost their lives have been doing the rounds of social media and TV channels all week. The public response to the fatal road crash on Charoti bridge in Palghar district of Maharashtra poured out in stages. Much of the initial outrage was directed at airbags: why didn’t they inflate to save the two rear passengers in such an expensive car? Was something amiss? This reaction overlooked the fact that only the highest of high-end cars, like the S-Class Mercedes, have rear-seat frontal airbags. The feature is not more than a couple of years old. Curtain airbags for back-seat passengers in the GLC are meant to protect them from a side-impact crash. Mistry and Pandole lost their lives to a frontal collision. Then there was the issue of rear seat belts. They unfortunately weren’t wearing theirs, and this is a critical safety feature.

As more details emerged, the public reaction focused on the alleged driving lapses of Dr. Anahita Pandole, who at the wheel might have been trying to overtake a heavy vehicle from the wrong side at high speed (a reliable estimate of which wasn’t available).

These, however, are inadequate and even simplistic explanations of the tragic event. The SUV had rammed into a dangerously protruding parapet wall on Charoti bridge on a high-speed road, and this is the part that should really upset us as citizens who pay taxes (and toll money) for the roads we use. While we become savvier customers of cars and expect safer vehicles, why aren’t we also asking for safer roads? The state of roads in many parts of the country, especially after the monsoon rains, scream negligence and danger. But have we become so apathetic to this state of affairs that our internalized acceptance of inferior roads should continue to put our lives in danger?

The highest number of road crash deaths (nearly 35%) happen on national highways. Highways that the government aims to construct at a speed of 50km per day. Questions are finally being raised about their quality. But let’s consider the humongous baggage we have at hand in the form of treacherously designed roads already. Road safety advocacy group SaveLife Foundation, a non-profit organization, has consistently flagged “fatal" corridors where a disproportionately high number of crashes and fatalities occur as a result of poor road engineering.

Visuals of the parapet wall jutting out at the point where the road branches out into two separate bridges without warning, which the SUV rammed into, show dubious engineering and design. The structure could have been in Dr. Pandole’s blind spot if she had tried to overtake from the left side, but what can one say about a 3-lane carriageway that suddenly forks out and then merges into a 2-lane bridge, except to gasp in horror?

Let’s segue away for a moment and consider the roads we take for our daily commutes. Consider the number of jaywalkers on the streets, and how often safety road-markers to guide drivers or pedestrians go missing. Driving itself is an encounter with chaos, with rules that exist only on paper.

Moreover, our expectations of safety equipment in cars also need to be tempered. Yes, seat belts and airbags save lives... but only if we strap ourselves in. Airbags and seat belts are a system that work in conjunction. The idea is to restrain you if the vehicle undergoes a crash, keep you firmly in your seat and cushion the injuries you may receive from hard surfaces in the cabin or by ramming into co-passengers (and threatening their lives as well). An airbag does little good if a passenger isn’t in the seat when it inflates. Seat belts are non-negotiable.

While Cyrus Mistry’s death has drawn attention to this, the sad truth is that too many Indian lives are lost to road crashes. In his address at a recent business conclave, Union road and transport minister Nitin Gadkari said that in all the aspects of infrastructure development he oversees, safety is one on which he’d fallen short. It takes statesmanship to make that admission. He also promised a notification to mandate a seat belt reminder for rear car seats. To be sure, several premium cars already have this feature (though these alarms can be silenced without belting up). A follower on Twitter pointed out to me that some mass-market cars also had this feature before being dropped from subsequent versions. Implementation authorities will now have to get serious for the rule to make a difference.

India’s influential automotive industry lobby has a record of trying to delay safety mandates on airbags and anti-skid braking systems. The argument has been the need to keep vehicles affordably priced in India. The ethical question aside, can a fast-growing market like ours really hit a speed bump because of the incremental cost of safety equipment that’s standard in global markets?

Another question is for customers, who have grown savvy enough to seek 5-star crash-test ratings, though many imagine the number of airbags is directly proportional to the robustness of their car and hence their safety. But do you always strap yourselves in when you sit in the backseat of your car? Do you encourage your family to?

Alisha Sachdev covers the automotive and mobility sector for Mint 

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