Is putting the onus of safety on the common man with outrageous fines amid an ongoing slowdown, the right form of deterrence to curb the menace of road accidents?
The BJP government brought in new hefty traffic penalties under the amended Motor Vehicle Act. As per the Union Minister of Transport Nitin Gadkari, the new laws will make Indian roads safer and curb accidents. But the exponential rise in the scale of traffic fines under the amended MV act has already created much furore. The minister stated that 1.5 lakh in 5 lakh Indians die due to road accidents. But do liquidity-famished consumers in a recession-hit economy deserve such immense risks?
The government is adamant that the substantial blow new penalties pose on cash-starved pockets of Indian vehicle owners makes sense.
However, there has been widespread outrage from masses and political parties. Some say that the revised traffic fines are harsh and illogical. Others are opining that the fines are aimed to fill the state treasury. But the question is, will such hefty fines be enough to deter vehicle users from reckless driving?
India’s new outrageous traffic penalties
While the argument that the new traffic fines will fill coffers is nonsensical, they do come across as harsh and illogical. State governments in Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, and Punjab have rejected the new prescribed penalties. On the other hand, some others including BJP governed states Gujarat, Uttarakhand, and Karnataka which did implement the penalties are now mulling to scale them back.
What the new Motor Vehicle (MV) Amendment Act, 2019 does is exponentially amplify penalty on 63 different provisions. Whatever be the reasoning, the new amounts are a significant dent on the average Indian vehicle user’s monthly microeconomics. The outrage among most motorists is that such hefty penalties would amount as much as the monthly salaries. Many use vehicles they bought for a price cheaper than the new penalties.
Furthermore, India’s road infrastructure still lacks in a number of basic aspects. This includes proper signage and markers, and speedy issuance of transport documents. Likewise, there is further speculation on how much safety advancement the 63 penalties would provide to Indian roads. Moreover, a number of cases of drunk or reckless driving leading to accidents come from the affluent strata. Unfortunately, the new penalties would hardly pinch or affect them.
And they say Millennials are bringing on the auto slowdown
Recently, India’s Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that millennials using Ola, Uber and similar cab services instead of purchasing cars is heavily factoring in on the economic slowdown. Undoubtedly, the economy is at frustrating levels of stagnation with the auto sector being the worst hit. But the government’s move to exponentially increase traffic penalties, in turn, amplifies the after-purchase costs for car owners.
Even if app-based ride-hailing services have enabled the masses to move around without owning a car, the platforms are themselves significantly contributing to car sales. However, the new laws may compel both individual owners to stop driving as well as taxi and autorickshaw drivers to rethink their trade.
There is already a crunch in the private rent-based transport services sector, where drivers are struggling to make ends meet.
Babul, an auto-rickshaw driver summarized the pain of the low-income group. “We are not earning enough to get by in today’s mandi (slowdown). A hefty fine that consumes a major chunk of my monthly earnings would leave me in dire difficulty. I might have to stop driving and move to some other occupation”. Therefore, for the driver community, such a fine would destroy the dynamics of economic viability. Unfortunately, this acts as a different kind of deterrent.
The ‘Indians don’t seem to mind hefty fines in America’ logic
Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari also opined that when Indians go to other countries like the US, they do not seem to mind strict traffic rules. He further said the same people have no regard for rules in India. However, it may be noted that the majority of Indians going and driving overseas earn much more on average than their counterparts working in India.
While most NRIs have the financial ability to pay such hefty fines or even be deterred, to the poorer lower and lower-middle-class income groups such a fine would be catastrophic.
On average a US salary is 54% more than the salary of an individual in India at similar levels in their career. In another perspective, the average median household income in India stood at USD 1670 (roughly INR 1,20,000) in 2016, compared to USD 59,039 (roughly INR 42,23,000) in the US. That amounts to 35 times more money. So, with this stark contract in the microeconomics of average citizens, does the logic even hold water?
The bigger question which would define safer roads
Another vital question that comes up with the argument of increased fines being effective is the fact that the Indian transport ecosystem is in vital need for administrative reforms. Acknowledging the fact that a significant part of the reforms is Section 198(A) of the amended MC Act. The law requires that any designated authority/ contractor/ consultant/ concessionaire who holds responsibility for design/ construction/ maintenance of roads needs to meet the safety standards laid down by the center.
This comes with a prescribed penalty for any death or disability because of a safety violation by the above stakeholders. The provision carries scope for litigation by users of roads across Indian states. However, the fact that only the impact of accidents proves a missing safety feature should not be the ground of enforcement of such a provision. There should be a more direct push. One which ensures the infrastructure meets safety requirements such as road conditions, traffic signage, and signals.
There is a lack of respect for road laws from VIP vehicles, which seldom get checked or fined for violations.
Consequently, their arrogance on the roads arguably encourages other vehicles to follow their footsteps. Amplification of traffic violation fines might help somewhat in the reduction of road accident deaths. But proper enforcement of road safety parameters and accountability of infrastructure developers is a measure than needs more immediate attention.
Is the ‘financial blow psych’ deterrent enough against reckless driving?
India houses one of the world’s worst road infrastructure with road casualty stats of 1,47,913 road fatalities in 2017. That does validate Union Transport Minister Gadkari’s argument of protection of the lives of citizens. However, the move to exponentially amplify traffic penalties as a deterrent is missing the point. The US took decades to make roads safer, through careful planning and more efficient and holistic enforcement of regulations. Moreover, the fines are decided through Court litigation and repeat offenders are stripped of the privilege to drive.
Similarly, ensuring safer roads in India needs more focus on the hazards arising from infrastructure-related flaws rather than the fact that a number of citizens ride without helmets and drive without seatbelts (not justifying the acts). Moreover, the impunity enjoyed by the affluent, and powerful in the country makes these amendments more of a menace for the common man rather than an overall impactful step in curbing the road menace. In fact, the hefty traffic fines just add to the stress and slowdown already affecting the country rather than ensuring a just approach to accountability for the stakeholders tasked with keeping the roads and its users safe.
Co-written by Abhishek Kumar Sushil