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In the driver's seat

Thursday, July 05, 2018

As perceptions of women drivers are slowly changing, car manufacturers have begun to recognise the value of this customer segment, says Tanmaya Vyas

When Sushma Parchure, a scientist, was 30, her husband told her that he would not buy a new car if she refused to drive. There were few women at the wheel in those days, and Sushma was reluctant to drive after meeting with an accident. “I am 56 now and it’s been over 25 years that I have been driving,” she says. “I drive even today and totally enjoy it.”

Traditionally, driving in India has been considered a man’s prerogative and women drivers have been the butt of jokes. Advertisements for cars would be targeted at men, sometimes with decorative images of women draped over them. This, despite the fact that women have enthusiastically participated in car rallies for decades and the first woman to drive a car in India can be traced way back to the early 20th century— Suzanne Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata.

In the West, as well, as Katherine J Parkin’s book, Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars, observes, the automobile has served as a symbol of masculinity ever since the Ford Model T became a vehicle for the masses. She points out that the freedom of the open road, the car's horsepower, technical know-how for tinkering: all of these experiences have largely been understood from the perspective of the male driver.

Now, however, perceptions are changing. According to Mahindra First Choice Services (MFC) women are not only driving, but are increasingly buying and maintaining their own cars. MFC, which runs 340+ car workshops in 24 states, believes that in the last five years, women have made up 15% of the 31.3 million passenger car market in India and the number is set to grow exponentially. In order to reach out to this growing segment, MFC is planning to introduce best practices to encourage women customers to visit service stations. In the past, they have curated initiatives such as ‘Under the Bonnet’—a car servicing experiential for female executives. They will also launch ‘A Date with your Car’ for women, to give them a hands-on experience on basic car care and troubleshooting.

With this shift in the customer segment, brands have also started recognizing the need for greater safety measures to ensure that women are not stranded with breakdowns, says MFC. They are consciously evolving their design to include these requirements, specific to women. These include features like live car tracking through apps, pick-up and drop facilities for car servicing, SOS buttons, rear camera, 24-hour roadside assistance, parking sensors and automatic door closing systems.

It is true that there are still many women in Mumbai who do not drive, though their families may own cars, or they themselves can afford to buy one. Twenty-two-year-old Namrata Kale, for instance, says: “I don’t drive because is I am scared of accidents as I have had a few riding my bikes.” Fitness expert Jyoti Hardikar also opts for public transport. “I don’t drive because I don’t know if I can handle the traffic and I am not really fond of driving either,” she explains.

However, there are others like Yogita Raghuvanshi, a law graduate from Nandurbar, who started driving a goods truck on highways to support her two children. Closer to Mumbai, we have Jyoti Waskar-Shetty, who first took up riding a rickshaw; today she drives for both Uber  and Ola. “I have been driving for the past 13 years and am very proud of my profession and work,” she says. “There are times when many men try to over-take my car just because I am a female and underestimate my driving skills. However, after such a long time, I exactly know how to handle these situations. Some passengers are pleasantly surprised when they see a lady driver.”

As more women are recognising, driving, like cooking is a basic skill; just as men need to know how to cook, women need to know how to drive.   Zinal Dedhia, a media professional, observes, “Knowing how to drive can be beneficial, as you don’t have to depend on your father, brother or husband, especially during emergencies.”

The jokes may continue but women like Pallavi Malhotra, a public relations professional, are undeterred. “Most men think they drive better, but then that can’t stop me from driving,” she says. “I got my first car when I turned 18 and have been driving since then. I drive to Goa thrice a year, sharing turns to drive the car with my husband and drive every day to work as well,” she says.

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