India aims to finalise six-airbags rule by year-end to beef up road safety

By Aftab Ahmed and Aditi Shah

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India's road transport minister expects to finalise rules for all cars to have six airbags by the end of the current fiscal year, as part of a series of steps to improve safety in a country that has the world's deadliest roads.

The renewed push comes after Cyrus Mistry, the former chairman of Indian conglomerate Tata Sons, died in a car crash on Sunday, reigniting the road safety debate in the world's fourth-largest car market.

The draft rules were made public in January and were expected to be finalised a month later, but they are facing resistance from some car makers which say it will increase vehicle prices.

The government is also planning to make it mandatory for car makers to install an alarm system for rear seat belts to enforce their use and will audit all national highways to make them safer, Nitin Gadkari said at his residence on Wednesday.

"Life safety is important for all people," Gadkari said, adding that he hopes to finalise the airbags rule by the end of the year.

Gadkari said he hopes the efforts will halve road accidents and deaths by the end of 2024.

More than 150,000 people died in over 500,000 road accidents in India in 2021, Gadkari said.

In 2020 more than 133,000 people were killed in 355,000 road accidents, government data showed. About 3 million cars are sold in India each year, and car passengers accounted for 13% of the deaths in 2020.

The ministry estimates that having airbags, along with seat belts, would have saved the lives of at least one-third of the 39,000 people who died in road accidents in 2020 due to head-on or side collisions.

Two airbags - one each for the driver and front passenger - are already mandatory. The government estimates adding four more airbags would cost no more than $75. Auto market data provider JATO Dynamics, however, estimates it could increase costs by at least $231.

"We have asked car makers to be quality conscious, not cost conscious," Gadkari said, adding that cars exported from India to several other markets are already fitted with six airbags so can be easily introduced in the country as well.

Gadkari said the government also wants to improve lane discipline and will consult other state ministers on how to curb high speeds on highways.

However, Gadkari said having stricter rules alone will not help and the government is working on ways to enforce them. One potential way is by increasing the fines for non-compliance.

"There is no respect for the law and there is no fear of non-compliance. If people still don't improve we will have to be stricter," he said.

(Reporting by Aftab Ahmed and Aditi Shah; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Kim Coghill)