Verdict corner: Redraft the road safety Bill

Even the revised provisions are focused more on technology solutions rather than urban design solutions.

The Road Transport and Safety Bill 2014 which replaces the existing Central Motor Vehicles Act 1988 may be tabled in Parliament in the upcoming session starting April 20 after getting approval from the Cabinet next week. The draft Bill stresses on stronger punitive action and penalties, and aims to curb traffic violations by streamlining issuance of driving licences, registration of vehicles and introduction of digital systems. The Bill is in sync with the best practices adopted by six advanced nations—the US, Canada, Singapore, Japan, Germany and the UK.

While the Bill should be aiming for zero mortality, it has set a target to save 2 lakh lives in the first 5 years through reduction in road accident deaths by strict implementation of laws. It proposes heavy fines such as R5 lakh for faulty manufacturing design of vehicles, cancellation of licence for rash driving, and R3 lakh and a seven-year imprisonment for death of a child in certain circumstances. Driving at excessive speed may attract a fine of up to R3,000. This is in sharp contrast to the R400 penalty under the current Act. For repeat offences, the amount of penalty will be higher and there would be demerit points leading to suspension of the licence.

While the original draft had proposed to dramatically step up punishments for rash driving, the final version has brought it down to at least 1 year. It has reduced fine from R3 lakh to R50,000 and watered down the penalty provisions—rash driving, driving under the influence of alcohol and even overloading.

While the older version had provisions for fine from a minimum R5,000 to a maximum R12,500 for repeat offences for over-speeding, now it has been brought down to R1,000 and R6,000. As far as drunk driving is concerned, the fine has been reduced from R30,000 to R10,000, which can be increased to R20,000 in case of repeat offence.

India has the distinction of having the highest number of road accident related deaths in the world—every 4 minutes one person dies in a road accident. WHO’s global safety report states that India has the highest road traffic accident rate worldwide with over 1.4 lakh deaths annually, beating even China.

The figures furnished by the ministry of road transport and highways in the volume Road Accidents in India 2010 highlighted the extent road accidents and fatal cases between 1970-2010. According to the report, India has a road network of 46.89 lakh km with 11.49 crore vehicles. Road accidents in 2010 were 4.30 lakh, in which 1.26 lakh persons were killed and 4.66 lakh seriously injured. Over 1.38 lakh deaths have occurred in 2013 alone and most of the fatalities were on account of over-speeding and drunk driving.

In light of increasing road accidents, the government was forced to bring in these changes after the Supreme Court asked the states to implement the recommendations given by its panel set up last year to suggest measures to prevent road accidents and ensure accountability. The panel headed by former SC judge KS Radhakrishnan pointed out deficiencies in enforcement of the motor vehicles law and suggested the state governments to strengthen enforcement against drunken driving, over-speeding and other offences. Asking for audit of road safety to be conducted by states to ensure that safety standards are incorporated in the design, construction and maintenance of roads, the panel raised concern about lax procedure for issuing driving licences, failure to implement the helmet laws strictly that result in high fatality of two-wheeler and pillion riders, lack of awareness among people on road safety rules, and inadequate medical facilities.

Though the transport ministry claims that the Bill would save 2 lakh lives in the next 5 years, experts have ridiculed it as wishful thinking. Southern states have also flayed the Bill as they apprehend that it seeks to divest states of their powers including revenues and impact the federal structure of India.

Questions have been raised about the adequacy of the Bill to address the alarming safety issues including the method of fixing fines. Experts feel that the Bill needs a more holistic approach with strong compliance strategies and stronger preventive action. They suggest that the penalty amount should be decided keeping in view India’s per capita income as imposing hefty fines will increase under-reporting since the majority of drivers on Indian roads cannot afford to pay them.

Though the enactment proposes various authorities to bring coordination and integration in multiple transport authorities to improve road safety, it doesn’t give clarity on monitoring and compliance strategies and institutional arrangements, says legal experts.

Road safety experts feel that the government needs to have an independent expert safety agency besides a National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board. Even the revised provisions are focused more on technology solutions than urban design. A huge proportion of road crash victims are pedestrians and bicyclists, but the Bill has ignored the role of urban design in ensuring safe access to them.

SaveLIFE Foundation, an NGO working on improving road safety and emergency medical care across India, has suggested, “If reformation is one of the key objectives of penalising speeding offenders, it is more effective to suggest community service penalty as additional penalty, since there are rich and poor income violators of this offence. This will have effective detrimental effect on road-users, across all economic backgrounds.” The NGO has suggested redrafting of a provision relating to violation of licensing provisions, saying fines for motorcycles, LMVs and HMVs should be differentiated based on the danger posed due to increased speed.

The draft Bill is in circulation. There is ample scope for changes. The Bill must be redrafted before it is introduced in Parliament. If not corrected, the road safety situation in India will end up in a real mess.

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First published on: 16-04-2015 at 12:28:08 am