In 2003 Ford Motor Co. launched Driving Skills for Life (DSFL), a program the automaker created to teach newly licensed teenagers the necessary driving skills beyond the offerings of most drivers' education courses. Since then Ford has rolled out the program to Europe, South Africa, Latin America and Asia, and is now doing a massive push to change driving habits in India, which has the highest amount of automobile fatalities in the world.
Ford’s aggressive drivers’ education program is an example of how a brand can build loyalty and trust by leveraging what it knows and does well. The result is a key tenet of a corporate social responsibility program that has helped build Ford’s reputation as a responsible stakeholder in one of its newest and increasingly lucrative markets.
India loses 17 citizens an hour in car accidents, or almost 400 daily. Many factors feed into this abysmal statistic: the spotty enforcement of traffic laws; overloading of vehicles with people as well as goods, increasing distractions as well as dangers to passenger safety; transport infrastructure not keeping up with the country’s modernization; and the ability to score a driver’s license through dubious channels. Or as Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman Deepie Sethi succinctly explained to me during a telephone interview from her office in Gurgaon, 20 miles outside of New Delhi: “The basic issue is a lack of road sense.”
The issue is important because, of the 140,000 traffic fatalities in India each year, 80 percent are of drivers ages 15 to 40. Such an impact on youth is not only an emotional and tragic loss, it robs India of its most productive workers who have the most potential to contribute to the country’s economic transformation.
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As someone who recently spent time in India, I can attest to the experience commuting within the country — India’s current social mores on the roads make driving throughout India exciting, and at the same time, terrifying. Driving, once the luxury of the few, has become more of a daily routine for millions as India’s middle class expands. But with driving still a new phenomenon, the demand for good drivers’ education is not keeping up with the supply. It is up to automakers to step in and teach motorists safe driving skills and Ford is ramping up its efforts.
Ford’s DSFL program in India has stretched far beyond its roots as the teen-focused initiative of a decade ago. First, the program is open to anyone interested in honing his or her driving skills, not just consumers who purchased a Ford truck or automobile. Furthermore, the program does not focus solely on safety and basic driving etiquette; customers who attend these two-hour courses, followed by driving practice, also learn how to drive more economically as well as ecologically. As a result drivers adopt better habits to decrease wear and tear on their vehicles, which saves them money and time spent on maintenance. And as this program scales, more fuel-efficient driving will help address air quality in India’s largest cities, many of which rank among the world’s most polluted metropolitan areas.
Ford’s driving classes also encourage drivers to adopt safety measures more stringent than what local regulations dictate: For example, most local laws only require drivers to wear a seat belt, but attendees in Ford’s classes are advised that everyone in an automobile should wear one. And as a sober reminder, DSFL classes mention India’s high traffic fatalities and injury statistics, too.
The DSFL’s rollout also goes beyond individual automobile owners. Ford has organized classes for fleet owners and employees, Indian defense personnel, Delhi’s traffic police, local community organizations such as the Rotary Club, automobile bloggers and corporate offices including HSBC and Genpact. By reaching out to companies and fleets, Ford opens the opportunity for safer driving habits to scale throughout India’s cities and towns.
Such a strategy is the reality as automakers confront the future of their business models in developed and developing nations alike. Growing urbanization and the resulting overcrowded cities mean the automakers’ perception of every middle class citizen owning an automobile will not be the case in the future. Automakers such as Ford will have to adapt to a world where fleets, such as those for car-sharing programs, will become the norm. The competition to attract consumers will become more fierce — and car companies who emerge as the most engaged with consumers’ interests will come out ahead.
For now Ford’s DSFL program is in India’s largest cities, with the program soon expanding to the country’s tier two and three cities and towns. So far 7,500 people have benefitted from the program in India, and 60,000 throughout all of Asia have participated.