When a Delhi sessions court judge juxtaposed the quantum of punishment allowed for hit-and-run cases with that for killing a cow, the irony was inescapable. Judge Sanjeev Kumar’s juxtaposition of the 7-14 years awarded for killing a cow with the two years given for a hit-and-run is more a call to action than a lament. And this is not the first time that judiciary has decried the seemingly inadequate punishment for rash and negligent driving. Indeed, the Supreme Court and various High Courts have urged lawmakers to amend the law and bring in tougher laws for such offences. The government, for its part, has doubled the fine and prescribed stricter jail-terms for repeat offences. But the maximum jail term remains capped at two years for first-time offences, even in cases of drunken driving, in a country that still accounts for 10% of the road accidents globally.
While there is a need for heavier punishment for rash and negligent driving, the law must be nuanced—there has to be a less stringent view of cases where there are mitigating factors. For instance, in the UK, not only does the law distinguish between cases of vehicular homicide, there are caveats for each type of offence to determine seriousness of risk in each case. More important, different convictions earn different sentencing—it can range from a minimum of mandatory public service to 14 years of imprisonment. Similarly, Canada also outlines stricter punishment for avoidable vehicular homicide. Since mens rea (criminal intent) is difficult to prove, categorisation like that followed in many US states makes better sense. In California, for instance, depending on the degree of recklessness and on whether alcohol was involved or not, the charges get progressively serious—vehicular manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, or second-degree murder. The law in many states in the US also treats fleeing after an accident, even if there was no indiscretion on part of the driver, as a crime that could earn the driver harsher terms.’