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Driving - Friendly cars for the disabled

Driving - Friendly cars for the disabled

By Aditi Maheshwari

Earlier having a disability generally forced you into a situation where you had to be chauffeured around by others but with time and rapid upgradation of technology new possibilities have emerged. Good adaptive gadgetry is available to support special driving needs and allows to sustain freedom and independency in life. This was an untapped segment for automobile companies too where the disabled don’t become a pressure on the people around them and can drive themselves. Making adaptation easy and comfortable by adding supportive equipment, people with disabilities can now drive safely on the roads making their living independent and enjoyable.


‘Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan) in India- A Statistical Profile: 2021’, based on the findings of National Sample Survey of Persons with Disabilities and Census of India 2011 the differently abled population in India is 26.8 million. In percentage terms, this stands at 2.21 %. According to an industry intelligence report by Fact.MR titled “Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle Market Forecast, Trend Analysis & Competition Tracking – Global Market insights 2018 to 2028” the wheelchair-accessible vehicle market is projected to expand at a steady pace and its growing demand is expected to translate into sales crossing US' 6 billion by end of the period of assessment (2028).


However, when it comes to India there are no disabled-friendly vehicles in Indian automobile market as no car company produces even a single accessible model. Left with no choice people with disabilities, have been forced to retrofit or modify the available vehicles through local fabricators at personal cost to meet their specific needs. The entire exercise is time-consuming, frustrating, expensive, unsafe and sometimes against the law as well. These modified vehicles often become ineligible for warranties and insurance services, but people still try to manage. However, this option is in jeopardy after the Supreme Court held any such modification as illegal if it is not done by the manufacturer and reflects on the RC of the vehicle.


Vehicle modification process has become a daunting task due to various reasons. People with disabilities face subtle discrimination in the insurance sector. Moreover, private modification in vehicles is not crash tested thereby safety is not guaranteed. The quality of modification largely depends on the skill of the fabricator and there is no mechanism to verify the same Any private modification renders the warranties, insurances of the vehicle invalid. Even  our capital Delhi has no accessible Taxis/ Cars for wheelchair users and other mobility impaired people, mainly because commercial vehicles must run on CNG and once a CNG Cylinder is installed in the taxi, it leaves no space for wheelchair manoeuvring in the vehicle.


COST-SAVING OPPORTUNITIES AND LICENSING REQUIREMENTS


Availability of a wide range of adaptive solutions, associated costs for modifying a vehicle can vary greatly depending on an individual’s needs. Some adaptive equipment, such as hand controls, special seat-back cushion, can be obtained for an additional cost. However, a new vehicle modified with adaptive equipment will cost anywhere from '20,000 to '80,000. Consulting with a driver rehabilitation specialist before you buy, can help you learn what adaptive equipment you will need, and about any additional spare parts to keep handy, thus avoiding paying for unnecessary equipment that you don’t need.


LICENSING REQUIREMENTS


The first step will require you to have your vehicle marked as an ‘Invalid Carriage.’ Next step is to get the vehicle modified from genuine vendors. A person is required to get his modified vehicle approved by the concerned RTO to ensure it meets safety and emission requirements. At the RTO, the inspector shall check your car and give his approval. The registration charges are minimal since you will get 100% Road Tax exemption (varies from state to state).


After procuring the licence, the vehicle shall carry a symbol on the front and rear, indicating that the vehicle is meant for driving by a differently abled driver.


Once approved, the person can apply for a driver's license by visiting the RTO with all the required documents. 


Note the following:


·       On 22 Oct 2020, the government notified amendments to the motor vehicle rules for clearly incorporating ownership details in registration documents, a move aimed to help car buyers with disabilities.


·       The Court of Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPD) noted in its recent order that every person with disabilities irrespective of their disability may face some challenges in driving a vehicle. Therefore, offering GST waiver to just one category (orthopaedic disability) is not appropriate; it should be given to persons having any type of disability.


Court of CCPD notes, “….orthopaedic disabilities do not form a class in themselves and giving GST concession to persons with orthopaedic disability alone cannot be said to be proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Hence, this practice constitutes violation of equality rights of persons belonging to other PWD Categories as guaranteed under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act, 2016.”


The Court thus recommended, “…the respondents i.e. the Department of Heavy Industry, Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises and Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance, Union of India shall amend necessary rules in order to give concessions in GST, road tax, toll tax to all persons belonging to PWD category, irrespective of types of disabilities they have.”


   However, at present, there is no GST or Road Tax concessions for purchase of two wheelers. Bringing the two wheelers also in the same ambit will benefit a large group who mostly depend on adapted two wheelers. Though the government has announced GST and other concessions, there are complaints by many stakeholders with disabilities that they face harassment and delays in getting the GST certificate and related documents, many a time after raising a litigation. Complaints have also been raised about non-cooperation from the Car Dealers when it comes to availing of the GST benefits.


Features to Look for in Cars for the Disabled


When purchasing cars for disabled it is important to take care of essential things that helps disabled driver to easily adapt to its functioning, like the following:


·       Ignition. It is best if it is on the dash or keyless.


·   Transmission. It is important that the car has an automatic transmission. Depending upon the disability, it generally difficult for a disabled person to drive on a standard transmission.


·   Controls. The car's controls are important as well. They should be large, easy to see and use; the bigger the better. You might even want to consider something with a touch screen for ease of use.


·    Shifter. If the car is an automatic, it is important to see if the shifter can be used without a button to change gear. Otherwise, this button could be painful for those with bad arthritis.


·      Locks and windows. It is important that the locks and windows are automatic.


·  Seats. It is probably a good idea to get a front seat that is a "bench" seat, and not two separate seats, since these are far roomier and more comfortable for someone who has a disability. They also should have automatic seats as well for easy flexibility.


·   Entry. It is also important to get a vehicle that is extremely easy for the disabled person to get into the car. Having keyless entry would help a lot.


·  Pedals and cruise control. The vehicle ought to have adjustable pedals along with cruise control, all of which will make driving a lot easier.


Challenges in re-sale due to ‘adapted vehicle’ tag


Currently the vehicle purchased by a person with physical disability is registered as an ‘adapted vehicle’. After a span of time, when the person with disability wants to sell the vehicle or replace it with a newer one it becomes difficult to sell, since the Registration Certificate (RC) has the tag of “adapted vehicle”. No solution has been currently provided for this disadvantage a person with disability faces. The Govt. of India needs to provide easy mechanisms to update the RC, if the adaptation is removed by the purchaser through an authorised workshop or car manufacturer to make it easy on resale. The exit route or clearance mechanism will directly reflect on the sales of adaptive vehicles.


Forward Looking


Time has come for the Government of India to implement Chapter VIII Section 43 of the RPWD Act and take measures to promote development, production and distribution of universally designed consumer products and accessories for general use for persons with disabilities. However, the Govt. can’t manufacture all the adaptive vehicles exclusively for people with disabilities. Universal design in product development is the way forward where private players particularly in the automobile industry genuinely take this up – not as a charity but as a routine business proposition.


Modular adaptation kits like right hand controls, left hand controls, only foot controls, mechanisms/ features for deaf drivers etc. need to be considered in the Research and Development. Similarly, designing wheelchair accessible vehicles of different sizes would be a game changer. More innovative accessories can be devised in the vehicle accessible to diverse users. For e.g.  accessible entertainment system or air conditioning controls for blind users etc. These auto products should be inclusive for all modes of transport i.e.; for individual use, paid taxi/ para-transit or public transport purposes.


Synergies of legal mandate, along with competitive prices, and incentives for manufacturers and the business potential of tapping in the new market segment to meet the needs of users with disability cannot be ignored. If availability, competitive pricing and less paper work, more people would prefer accessible cars for their families to meet the diverse needs of family members in addition to enhancing independence of the disabled members.


Huge import duty in importing accessible vehicles


No auto manufacturer produces accessible cars in India and people with disabilities continue to suffer due to lack of mobility choices, the only option left is to import good quality accessible cars from abroad. But there is up to 205 percent duty on import of vehicles (below 10 seaters) and up to 73 percent duty (above 10 seaters). This applies to all accessible or disabled-friendly cars even when called for personal use. It is imperative that not only vehicles, but all mobility equipment, assistive technologies and devices meant to improve lives of persons with disabilities are removed from ‘luxury’ segment and put in ‘zero rated list’ as it important to understand that it’s more of a ‘necessity’ for mobility of persons with disabilities, enabling them to live independent and dignified lives similar to that of other while traveling. Let’s not confuse their necessity as their choice.


NGOs and user-groups have been demanding complete exemption from import duty, excise duty and other miscellaneous charges levied on the import of accessible cars as well as mobility devices, assistive technologies, irrespective of their cost brackets, meant for use by the persons with disabilities. No revenue loss will be incurred by the government as the number of such applicants are small. To check any misuse, the government may link this exemption with Aadhaar and data could be maintained by the concerned departments in the manner it is maintained by Department of Heavy Industries for granting GST concessions to persons with disabilities on purchase of cars in India.


Attitudinal biases and lack of accessible mobility options simply adds to the challenges faced by people with disability. Imposition of taxes and duties enhances financial pressure on them. It’s naturally more tough for them to earn income because of their disability to fulfil their daily needs along with buying assistive devices and mobility equipment to perform their daily chores.


Allowing zero import duty will not only make the hi-end assistive technologies, products and mobility options affordable to many people with disabilities and make their lives easier, safe and dignified, but it will also open a new market for such products in India and many businesses will be attracted to invest in manufacturing such products here in the country. Local automobile manufacturers can be provided incentive to make customised adaptable cars by providing subsidies and tax incentives, etc.


Make Accessible Model Mandatory


Chapter VIII, Section 43 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act, 2016, says, “The appropriate Government shall take measures to promote development, production and distribution of universally designed consumer products and accessories for general use for persons with disabilities.”


The accessibility in vehicles should cover both possibilities:


Firstly, one that enables a disabled driver to drive the vehicle himself with necessary adaptations made.


Secondly, a vehicle that is designed to be used by a non-driving person with disability (such as a wheelchair user or a senior person with mobility difficulties) by providing enhanced headroom, lowered vehicle floor, raised windows to accommodate viewing by a wheelchair user or a tall person, automated retracting out/in seat for seniors, additional handles for stability and support, provisions of manual or automatic ramp /hydraulic lift to get in and out of vehicle with dignity, wheelchair docking and restraining /locking mechanisms etc.).


To fulfil the mandate of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act, 2016 and end discrimination, the government needs to make it mandatory for all car manufacturers selling their models in India to produce for sale ‘disabled-friendly or wheelchair friendly’ version of at least 40% of their models. To meet the needs of people with disabilities who self-drive with adaptation, the auto manufacturers could work on the concept of company fitted modular modification kits for each model of vehicle. The car manufacturers should work on research and development (R&D) involving user groups and accessibility experts to manufacture better disabled-friendly versions or in other words ‘universally accessible cars’ as it would contribute towards a humanitarian purpose.


Accessible Models bring benefits for users as well as manufacturers


Availability of a mandatory company fitted ‘modular modification kit’ for each model of vehicle will help diversity of users with disabilities to use the vehicles with ease & safety and any vehicle could be made disabled friendly without disturbing its frame, crash testing values or simply its essential safety features. Also, there will be no threat to safety features and the warranty of the vehicle as the manufacturer is providing adaptation in vehicle and the same is also reflected in the Registration Certificate.


This will allow buyers to avail excise duty concession provided by the Govt. on more vehicle models result being cost effective to the buyer as no modification is required. Also, vehicles will have provision of after-sale service including availability of disabled friendly kits and spare parts. Customers can avail of registration exemption, insurance concession and road tax exemption with ease thereby directly affecting the sale of such models.


Another important aspect is enabling easy to get driving license for the disabled drivers and promote independent mobility of persons with disabilities. Traffic management and road rules shall incorporate drivers with disability in all states across India for a healthy behaviour pattern to take root.


A great initiative made by Mahindra Group Chairman Anand Mahindra who has dedicated the company’s first customised sport utility vehicle (SUV) for people with disabilities to shooter Avani Lekhara who made history, by becoming the first Indian woman to win a gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics. This was in response to the President of the Paralympic Committee of India, Deepa Malik (@DeepaAthlete) who suggested that we develop SUVs for those with disabilities like the one she used in Tokyo. “I requested my colleague Velu, who heads Development to rise to that challenge. Well, Velu, I’d like to dedicate & gift the first one you make to #AvaniLekhara,” Mahindra said in a tweet. Mahindra also said that the challenge would be taken up by a team at Mahindra Research Valley. “We can work with companies like @TrueAssisTech which have already installed such systems in our cars. And we proudly cheer OUR contingent at #Paralympics #Praise4Para,” he tweeted.