‘We need to link licensing with objective evaluation’: Rahul Bharti
Rahul Bharti, Executive Director of Maruti Suzuki spoke with Autocar Professional about the company’s initiative to enhance road safety in India by improving evaluation processes for driving licences.
India is harmonising its safety standards with global benchmarks. But the number of deaths due to road accidents remains high. While the riders’ or drivers’ lives are being saved due to improved vehicles, there is a rise in the number of deaths of pedestrians and vulnerable road users. In an interview with Autocar Professional, Rahul Bharti, Executive Officer, Corporate Affairs at Maruti Suzuki emphasises the need for technology for enforcements. He reiterates the need for education and an objective evaluation before issuing driving licenses, to reduce human errors.
Can you share with us your observations on road safety in the country?
Road Safety is a comprehensive subject and requires concerted efforts of multiple stakeholders on all fronts like Engineering, Education, Evaluation, Enforcement and Emergency care. Maruti Suzuki has been working hard over the past two decades on this issue. We have taken significant initiatives in each of these areas.
If we have to solve a problem, we have to diagnose and analyse it first. So let us understand where the road casualties are happening. It will help us define our problem areas. We have observed that in the past six-seven years, the total percentage of Vulnerable Road Users (VRUs) dying was already high at 43 percent in FY15 and has gone up steadily and continuously to 67 percent in FY21. VRUs refer to pedestrians, bicycles, and two-wheelers. Sadly, it is consistently going up. Data for FY22 is awaited.
In contrast, the car occupant fatalities have shown a downward trend. It used to be 18 percent in FY15 and then receded to 15.8 percent in FY19, then 13.6 percent in FY20, and stands at 12.9 percent in FY21.
What does this data indicate regarding cars?
This data clearly indicates that over the period, casualties within cars have decreased. If we carefully analyse this between FY17 and FY20, India has aligned 100 percent with the global crash test norms, which implies our cars meet AIS 98, AIS 99, AIS 100 (Frontal offset collision norm, side-impact, and pedestrian impact.).
Therefore, as the percentage of cars manufactured after 2020 keeps on increasing in the overall population, the percentage of safer cars will also grow. And I have a feeling, this figure will keep coming down. We are already at 12.9 percent and it may go to single digits.
What are the three or four key steps needed to reduce the number of casualties on Indian roads?
One of the key findings of MoRTH suggests that human error accounts for more than 77 percent of accidents. Human error includes traffic rule violations, and not using safety equipment like seat belts and helmets, drunken driving, using mobile while driving and the like.
It might surprise you to know that out of the total deaths of car occupants that happened, 87 percent were not wearing seat belts. The seat belt has a very important function as it is a primary restraint system.
Similarly, out of the casualties among two-wheeler riders, 70 percent of the people were not wearing helmets. Many of these casualties could have been prevented. To begin with, even if we have these two basics which, when enforced, can save many lives. Of course, then there are other serious violations like over speeding, red light jumping, wrong side driving. They are also very critical.
To control human error, we have to first Educate then Evaluate objectively before issuing licenses and then Enforce. Maruti Suzuki has been working on driver training for the past two decades through eight Institutes of Driving and Traffic Research (IDTRs) and 500 Maruti Suzuki Driving
We realised we need to go to the next step and link licensing with objective evaluation. We thought let us computerise the entire licensing process in Delhi. So, as part of our CSR efforts, we set up Advanced Driving Test Tracks (ADTT) to automate driving test tracks in partnership with the Delhi Government Transport Department. In these ADTTs, driving license seekers get tested on their driving skills by video analytics technology with zero human intervention, all within a cycle time of 10 minutes. As part of the agreement with Delhi Govt, Maruti Suzuki’s role was to carry out construction of the test tracks, set up automation and IT system and provide maintenance support for three years before handover to Delhi Government. Delhi is now a 100 percent computerised in driving license testing.
Very interestingly, during the manual testing stage, the pass percentage was 84 percent. After implementation of the ADTT it fell down to 34. Which in a way implies that a large chunk of people, 50 percent, were taking the steering wheel or the scooter motorcycle, without sufficient skills. In a way this was unsafe. Having said that, life cannot continue without movement. We have to facilitate movement. The candidates also responded positively, trained and re-trained and improved their scores. The pass percentage gradually started inching up from 34 percent and has now reached 64 percent. We will be very heartened if and when it reaches 84 percent in Delhi. The improvement in quality has not compromised quantity.
Is enforcement the key?
Enforcement in a country as vast and as heterogeneous as India is not an easy task because the police to population ratio just cannot match global levels.
Therefore, the only way is the use of technology. Keeping this in mind, Maruti Suzuki did an experiment in Delhi, by setting up a Traffic Safety Management system. Under this initiative, we installed radars and cameras at 13 prime junctions in Delhi (on a stretch of Ring Road between Mayapuri and Sarai Kale Khan, with the other at ITO and RTR junction).
The e-challans shot up by 120 times, which means many potential unsafe situations were averted. In the next three years as awareness and consciousness increased, the e-challans also reduced drastically.
Is there a case of over regulation? We should be progressive and adopt regulations which are the need of the day, and which as per data and analysis will scientifically help to ensure safety on the roads. For example, now seat belt reminders are a fantastic regulation, because it nudges the occupants to fasten the seat belts. Fortunately, under MoRTH’s visionary leadership India made a major leap from 2017 to 2020 and implemented a major step up in its crash test regulations.
In case of Maruti Suzuki, in many models and variants, we have gone well beyond government mandatory requirements and provided additional safety features like six airbags, electronic stability control, electronic brakeforce distribution, HUD (Head up Display), Hill-Hold assist, 360 view camera, Suzuki TECT platform for enhanced safety, and ISOFIX child seat anchorages.
In India, accident research is conspicuous by its absence. Data collection is from the point of view of FIRs and police, not from the point of view of accident prevention.
There are some interesting bodies who do intensive accident research, like, RASI, a consortium and Maruti Suzuki is part of this consortium. Research is as per international norms. The sample size is small, about 2,000 but they study something like 200 parameters per accident. In most cases there is a combination of factors responsible for the accident. It is a more nuanced topic and needs a more multi-dimensional understanding of the topic. Also, data collection can have more parameters.
What is Maruti Suzuki's view on the six airbags rule?
Maruti Suzuki is already the highest seller of six airbags vehicles in India. We sold more than 1.8 lakh vehicles with six airbags in FY23. Starting about five years ago we took a conscious call to have all new models with six airbags in at least some variants. So, starting early 2022 five newly launched models have six airbags featured in some variants. If we have to cover all the variants, the design provision exists and we just need to scale up production. For other models, we have deployed our resources to make changes in the design to accommodate the six airbag fitment.
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