Much has changed for Indian motorists in the past two weeks.
Transport offices across the country have been busy collecting the hefty fines and penalties prescribed under the amended Motor Vehicles Act, which came into effect on Sept. 01. Over Rs1.4 crore ($1.94 million) was collected in the states of Haryana and Odisha alone in the first five days.
Even as state coffers are flowing with cash, drivers are crying foul as the fines levied are sometimes higher than the value of the vehicle itself. A biker in Gurugram (Haryana), for instance, was charged Rs23,000 for flouting several traffic rules. On Sept. 09, a truck registered in Rajasthan earned the dubious distinction of attracting the highest fine (Rs1.41 lakh) in the country, from the Delhi traffic police.
While the new laws were passed by the Narendra Modi government to instil road discipline and reduce the loss of lives due to accidents, experts say they are unlikely to make Indian roads any safer.
The new penalties may have deflected the attention from road safety.
“The conversation and focus should be on the value a human being puts to her own life. Instead, we are now debating the fine levied for certain traffic violations being higher than the value of the vehicle,” said Amit Bhatt, director of integrated transport at the non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI) India.
The fines for most traffic violations have more than doubled under the new Motor Vehicles Act.
Some see ulterior motives in the move. “Many citizens see the government’s move to introduce higher penalties as a means to boost its revenues amidst talks of an (economic) slowdown,” added Bhatt.
Besides, the implementation has been flawed.
There are states like West Bengal, Punjab, and Madhya Pradesh, which have refused to impose the revised penalties saying they are unreasonable. Then there are states like Gujarat and Uttarakhand, which have lowered the fines. Other states like Rajasthan and Delhi have stated that they, too, would be closely examining the quantum of the fines.
“With a number of states not notifying the Motor Vehicles Act, people are questioning the discrepancy? How can (the) lives of people be valued differently across states?” asked Bhatt.
Merely enhancing fines, in the absence of behavioural changes, is a short-sighted move, according to some. “There’s a lot of noise on higher penalties for road violations, but no one is talking about the number of traffic violators in the country or how it may reduce the instances of flouting rules,” said Darshini Kansara, deputy manager, industry research, Care Ratings.
There is a need to go beyond using fear to encourage people to follow rules and regulations.
“Fines are difficult to enforce simply because traffic police cannot be everywhere to detect and fine people for wrongdoing. Fines are also painful for people, not something that anyone really desires,” said Anand Damani, a behavioural scientist and partner at Briefcase, communication and behavioural design consultancy based out of Mumbai.
Also, smarter targeting of violations and introduction of specific penalties to check and stop traffic violations could have been a better alternative, said experts.
“Speed violation is the biggest challenge that needs to be addressed while addressing road safety. Targeting speed violations alone could see phenomenal improvement in promoting safer roads. Designing safe infrastructure could lead to massive reduction in road deaths,” added Bhatt.
Numbers suggest measures offered by Bhatt could go a long way in reducing mishaps on India’s killer roads.
Over 54,000 people died in road accidents on national highways in 2018, according to road transport minister Nitin Gadkari. A vast majority of the deaths were caused due to speeding, while 5% were a result of drunk driving.