EXCLUSIVE: Licence to drive, not kill!

Legacy driving school institutes are now unifying to meet Accredited Driver Training Centre norms, but the journey is facing hurdles in setting up expensive infrastructure and systems.

By Shahkar Abidi calendar 08 Jun 2023 Views icon4446 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
EXCLUSIVE: Licence to drive, not kill!

A network of about 40 legacy driving schools in and around Satara, Karad, and Sangli districts, among others in Maharashtra are on a mission. They have collectively zeroed in on a couple of land parcels and submitted a proposal to the road transport ministry for approval to set up an Accredited Driver Training Centre (ADTC), as mandated under the government's efforts to make driving license procurement more stringent.

Once approved, these driving school operators will contribute 50 percent towards the cost of establishing the ADTC, which is currently estimated to be around Rs 2 crore for the two-acre land based on its location. The Centre will contribute the rest. The official formalities are such that the driving schools need to form a legal entity in order to benefit from the scheme as operators of the ADTC, who will be entitled to a fee of about Rs 300 per case. The average daily footfall at an ADTC set-up stands at around 200 applicants which means the operators will collect Rs 60,000.

Even though government regulations allow for a 25km range, Yusuf Khan, owner of Perfect Motor Driving School in Satara, told Autocar Professional that the search for suitable land parcels is turning out to be a tough job due to the high prices. The network incorporates driving schools from various locations, making it challenging to acquire a tract of land in the centre of the network. Another requirement that proved difficult to meet was the presence of hilly terrain.

Khan said, “We have submitted the proposal and are now waiting for the response from the ministry,” adding that Maruti Suzuki, which is also looking to set up a similar centre in the region, also appears to be facing problems in acquiring the land.

According to the road transport ministry, driver error was responsible for about 78 percent of all traffic accidents in 2019, which highlights the urgent need for current and aspiring drivers to receive both theoretical and practical driving training. Setting standards, monitoring driving training, and issuing driving licenses based on an objective scientific process of testing skills have also been identified as needs. The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, includes a necessary amendment to Section 12 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. Furthermore, in accordance with the provisions, the government modified the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989, in June 2021 to make driving training scientific and systematic, to vest the accredited driving training centres with certain functions such as testing aspirants for the issue of a driving licence, and to make the ADTC a commercially viable business also.

The situation is better understood thanks to a survey done in 2017. Six out of ten Indian drivers surveyed admitted they had never taken a driving test. The tests themselves are often a sham. Even more concerning is the fact that 37 percent of truck drivers, despite being expected to have specialised skills to operate their massive vehicles, report having received no formal training prior to obtaining a license.

Experts point out that the transition to ADTC driving will significantly help in making driver licensing process streamlined and transparent. At present, the process is mostly controlled by intermediaries/agents who keep the system well-greased thereby breeding corruption.

 

Catch-22 situation

  • At the rate of Rs 300 per case and average daily feed of 200 applicants at eache centre,  operators will collect Rs 60,000. per day.
  • The cost of setting up the infrastructure as per prescribed guidelines car run into crores of rupees depending on the location.
  • Small time legacy players are unable to finance such operations and hence are trying out the cooperative participation model. 
  • However, there is no guarantee that even as a collective legal entity that they can make it happen.
  • There is fear that organisations with deep pockets could take over the cash-rich business.

Bigger players in the game
Ironically, the efforts of legacy driving school operators come after almost unanimous opposition to them. The most prominent of the many objections received by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) has been the minimum requirement to set up a test track in an area measuring approximately two acres. Acquiring such a large area in any major city will cost anywhere between Rs 5 and 10 crore, while even in semi-urban areas, the cost would still be not less than Rs 2-3 crore according to the driving school operators, emphasising that it is out of reach for the average entrepreneur. This aspect paves the way for the entry of entities with deep pockets, corporations or large, organised players. The smaller players feel they could be overshadowed.

“The new rules would deprive driving school operators, drivers, other employees, and their dependents of a source of income,” Khan wrote to central and state government officials last year.

Likewise, the Super Motor Driving School in Pune, which has been in operation for more than 25 years and employs about seven people, said in its correspondence to the ministry, “We would like to state that the road transport offices are situated in urban areas only in the entire country. The value of land in urban areas has skyrocketed. Even governments are struggling to have their own premises to set up offices, so multiple offices in the cities are utilising a single facility for the purpose of conducting driving tests.”

Similarly, in southern India, the Federation of Karnataka Driving School Owners Association stated that in a city like Bengaluru, an ordinary person operating a driving school can't afford two acres of land, either by lease or outright purchase. It termed the rule to be arbitrary, biased, and illegal and therefore cannot be implemented to profit the corporations by grabbing the survival of the driving schools and the people dependent upon them.

Amidst the opposition, some of the legacy driving school operators even came out with possible solutions for the government to consider. One of the key suggestions was requesting the government to start ADTCs. Increased fees could then be collected from the driving license applicants to make up for the upfront investments. Some of them even asked the government to continue with the existing system while increasing the duration of the waiting period. The operators also want the government to do away with the discarding of more than 15-year-old vehicles from training and instead allow them the option to just change the engine instead.

Change in mindset
So what made some of the legacy driving school operators change their stance? The answer can be found in the over 1,050-page response from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) to an RTI filed by Autocar Professional.

Even while acknowledging the flood of protest letters from driving school operators, the Ministry insisted that in order to provide world-class driving training, the minimum area required to make the test track stands at two acres. However, considering the limitations in hilly areas, the limitation has been reduced to one acre.

“In this regard, after discussion with Central Institute for Road Transport and International Centre for Automotive Technologies, it has been observed that the test tracks can be made on one acre if the land is used smartly. The drawings of the test track are also submitted to ICAT, which can be made mandatory as part of compliance for giving approval,” the ministry explained in its RTI response. Expanding further on the plans, the ministry explained the mandated need for simulators so as to impart virtual driving experience in order to test the competence of the candidate obtaining the course. Also, at the request of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MoPNG), additional rules on ‘fuel-efficient driving techniques’ in the test for the issuance of a learner's license have been included.

While the curriculum remains the same as that of motor vehicle centres and is applicable to standard driving schools, remedial training courses are also included. These centres have the option to offer user-specific courses in accordance with the National Skill Development Council (NSDC) and Standardisation Testing and Quality Certification (STQC)-mandated courses, such as ambulance driver and hazardous cargo vehicle driver, among others. It was emphasised that the course may be completed within a maximum of four weeks from the date of admission to the course.

This feature was first published in Autocar Professional's June 1, 2023 issue.

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