People blame the poor state of road safety in India on myriad factors. Some say that our road design is inherently unsafe, while others blame it on the lax enforcement of traffic laws and road discipline. Pedestrian accidents are often attributed to irresponsible jaywalking, whereas trees-in-cars are frequently accompanied by the explanation, “But there was a cow in the middle of the road!” A lot of these factors are indeed to blame. Over the last decade, 1.2 million Indians have died in road accidents, while another 5.3 million have been maimed. As things stand today, every hour sounds 16 death sentences for Indians on the road.
At Autocar India, however, we feel that all these road accidents boil down to just one principal factor – the driver. When things are distilled down to their very essence, driving consists of a human being controlling a nearly one-tonne collection of metal, plastic, rubber and combustible fluids moving at often-high speeds. Then, when things go wrong, it would not be unfair to blame either the driver or his vehicle. A good driver is capable of overcoming all accident-causing possibilities thrown at him by shoddily designed roads, rampant jaywalkers, poorly enforced traffic laws and stray cows.
Armed with the understanding that the driver is at the core of the road safety ecosystem, Autocar India set out to increase awareness about safe driving among the youth of India. The youth of today represents the next generation of drivers, and by extension, the level of safety on our roads for the next few decades.
The first car is flagged off for the gruelling final test; Finalists navigated the tricky course in WagonRs.
Reaching out to thousands of youngsters all over the country, however, is no easy task. With a view of increasing outreach, Autocar India partnered with Maruti Suzuki, India’s largest carmaker. In addition to having more cars on Indian roads than any other brand, the carmaker also owns a vast network of driving centres, Maruti Driving Schools (MDS), which are instrumental in putting well-trained drivers on the road. The carmaker also shares Autocar India’s idea of road safety – in the words of RS Kalsi, executive director of Maruti Suzuki India Limited, “If we train [drivers] at a young age and they spread the word about safe driving, it will certainly have an impactful bearing on road safety.” This is the essence of the Autocar Young Drivers programme, an initiative to keep the number of road fatalities and mishaps in India to a bare minimum by spreading awareness among the nation’s youth.
Over seven years, Autocar Young Drivers has grown in size and popularity. Its seventh iteration witnessed an overwhelming 41,000-plus applications, underscoring the increasing importance youngsters are placing on road safety.
Autocar Young Drivers 2015 adopted a slightly different approach this time around, with a greater emphasis on awareness than before. The actual competition was preceded by a road safety campaign, #RoadSafetyWars, that included a series of funny videos featuring comedian José Covaco taking digs at unsafe driving practices observed across the country. Viewers were also invited to be a part of the debate.
To encourage maximum participation, the eligibility criteria from the previous years was retained for Autocar Young Drivers 2015 – you had to be under the age of 30 and you had to have a permanent driving licence. Eligible applicants had to register on youngdrivers.in, and then field an online test comprising basic questions regarding the dos and don’ts of driving. Of the 41,000-odd participants, 810 candidates were selected for stage two.
These candidates were required to visit the closest Maruti Driving School (MDS) for an actual road test. Experienced instructors at the schools rated and selected 30 drivers, who were all crowned India’s safest young drivers for 2015. But even though 30 safe drivers were identified, the search was not yet over.
Placement of the cones simulated the tight lanes seen in many Indian towns.
One final test was conducted to distinguish the safest of them all. This round was held at the Institute of Driving and Traffic Research (IDTR), New Delhi. The institute trains lakhs of people for road driving each year. The facility comprises a large driving course, replete with technical turns, inclines and declines, real-world traffic signals, simulated traffic and parking spaces. The 29 finalists (one finalist, unfortunately, could not make it for the finale), each accompanied by an IDTR instructor, had to manoeuvre this course in a Maruti WagonR. The instructors have a combined experience of training nearly 20 lakh drivers and knew exactly what to look out for when evaluating the young drivers. Some of trickiest bits of the course included the Reverse S-bend, the H-formation, and downhill and uphill driving.
The excitement among the finalists was palpable as they drew lots to determine the sequence of appearing for the test. Kritika Khanijo from Gurgaon, one of the two female finalists said, “It feels absolutely great [to be one of the two female finalists]. It is a onerous responsibility as I have to prove that women can drive unlike the many clichés that are associated with our driving.”
While the young drivers navigated the course by turns, we spoke to some of the participants, and the enthusiasm they displayed towards safe driving was both surprising and heartening. Ameeth Bharadwaj from Bengaluru said, “In a country where safety amounts to absolutely nothing, this initiative is a godsend. And with two of India’s biggest names in the auto industry coming together, I have only one thing to say: massive respect to you guys!”
The course turned out to be quite a challenge for the young drivers. ‘Safe driving tests’ conjures up images of slow speeds and careful turns, and is not a very intimidating phrase. On the ground at IDTR, though, things were slightly different. Despite being the safest drivers from over 41,000 youngsters, our finalists found the course very challenging indeed. The Reverse S-bend proved to be especially difficult for many of them. The IDTR instructors scored each finalist on 20 parameters, including subtle ones such as the pre-driving checks they performed, their knowledge of road civility and the consistency maintained while they drove.
After a gruelling day of testing, Autocar Young Drivers 2015 drew to a close at the award ceremony. This ceremony was attended by several eminent personalities, including celebrated actor Boman Irani, executive director of Maruti Suzuki India Limited, RS Kalsi, and Jayant Chaudhary, general secretary, Rashtriya Lok Dal, among others.
Actor Boman Irani, Jayant Chaudhary and RS Kalsi, executive director, Maruti, with the winner.
As the runners-up were announced, the suspense only mounted, broken finally by a loud round of applause as Mohit Kumar Malik from Faridabad was crowned the winner, and was handed over the keys to his brand-new Maruti Alto 800. Of the 29 finalists, Mohit had managed to manoeuvre the course at IDTR most gingerly, while staying completely calm and composed all throughout.
With the winner being declared, yet another successful iteration of Autocar Young Drivers came to an end. The enthusiasm displayed by youngsters towards safe driving was a very reassuring sign. From what we gauged, the programme told us that though the pace of change is slow in India, it is moving in the right direction. What these young drivers achieved was impressive in its own right, but the true impact of this programme will be felt when they act as ambassadors for road safety, spreading the word even further.