Fines are fine: States opposing the penalties in the amended Motor Vehicles Act
States with non-BJP governments like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Kerala, Odisha and West Bengal want to put the law on hold
The story about a Delhi resident surrendering his vehicle when his fine was Rs 23,000 is making headlines. But no one is talking about his five, very serious traffic violations — driving without licence, registration certificate, helmet, insurance and a Pollution Under Control certificate. In another country, this person would have been in jail. Meanwhile, in India, it seems to be an acceptable practice to drive without licence, proper paperwork or a seatbelt/helmet.
No wonder India is the road fatality capital of the world.
India had close to 150,000 road traffic fatalities in 2017. A quick review of data suggests the trends have continued in 2018 and 2019. India accounted for only 2% of the world’s motor vehicles but accounted for over 12% of its traffic-related fatalities. Typically, 150,000 fatalities mean three times as many serious injuries from road traffic incidents. Unfortunately, the majority of people involved in road traffic incidents are young people in productive age groups. 72% of victims are between the ages of 18 and 45 years; and 87% are between 18 to 60 years of age. Estimates suggest the incidents cost the country 3% of its GDP.
Among the vehicle categories involved in road accidents, two-wheelers, which are the most preferred and affordable mode of personal transport, accounted for the highest share in total road incidents (33.9%) and fatalities (29.8%) in 2017. Light vehicles, comprising cars, jeeps and taxis, come second with a share of 24.5% in total accidents and 21.1% in total fatalities. Driving with necessary training and wearing seatbelts and helmets can reduce these deaths.
On September 1, the new Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019, came into effect for this very reason. The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, was amended to provide for road safety. The amendment introduced several new provisions for compensation of road victims, compulsory insurance, good Samaritans, recall of vehicles, national transport policy, road safety board, taxi aggregators and offences and penalties.
Offences and penalties have been the only amendment in the news for the past two weeks since the law came into effect. There is not much discussion on some of the positives emerging from the amended law. Pedestrians are a key part of our transport systems. In all our cities, more than 30% people walk to work. It’s even higher in rural areas.
This results in a lot of fatalities and injuries: 14% of total road fatalities are of pedestrians. In urban areas, more than 50% of fatalities are of pedestrians. The new law talks about providing infrastructure for pedestrians. The amendment protects pedestrians from irresponsible riders and drivers who take their vehicles on the road without adequate training and under the influence.
Also, the new penalty for driving without licence has been increased 10 times to Rs 5,000, and for drunk driving to Rs 10,000. Still, these fines are much lower than those in some countries in the West and Southeast Asia. In many countries, these offences lead to imprisonment and disqualification from further driving.
States with non-BJP governments like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Kerala, Odisha and West Bengal want to put the law on hold. BJP ruled Gujarat is talking about slashing fines by as much as 90% and others like Maharashtra, Karnataka and Haryana are threatening to follow suit. It is extremely unfortunate that state governments are giving into populist pressures.
One of the sentiments that may be driving people’s opposition to the law is the inefficient use of public money. There is a lack of trust: people wonder what will happen to the money collected as fines and penalties. One way to overcome this challenge and build trust will be to ringfence the funds collected from traffic offences.
State governments could be transparent about the money collected and how it is used. These funds could be dedicated to improving public transport systems. These could also be used to provide subsidies to state road transport corporations and to PWD for retrofitting highway infrastructure for safety after road traffic inspections, etc.
In conclusion, I would like to ask the state governments to stay the course and not fall for populist sentiments. Road traffic fatality is on the rise. It is impacting the most productive age group of our society. State governments should keep the fines. They should also devise strategies to win public confidence and ensure that the Motor Vehicles Amendment Act gets implemented with a goal to reduce road traffic fatalities by 50% or more.
(The writer is director, Sustainable Cities, World Resources Institute India.)