Motor vehicles bill a weak attempt to tackle road traffic safety

Last Updated : 08 October 2014, 06:01 IST

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The draft Road Transport and Safety Bill 2014, now displayed on the website of the Ministry of road transport and highways has two documents besides the bill - a short document comparing the 2014 bill with the Motor Vehicles Act 1988, and highlights of the draft bill.

India has the largest number of road deaths in the world with a reported 1,39,091 deaths in 2012. Total number of fatalities in India has been steadily growing over the last four decades.  Since the formation of the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) in  1995 and focussed programme to “improve” highways in India with flagship programmes of the last three government - the golden quadrilateral, National Highways Development Programme phase I and Phase II, the traffic fatalities increased from 5-6 per cent per year in 1980s to 8-9 per cent in the last two decades.

Attempts have been made to address the issue of road safety in the last two decades.  The Sundar committee drafted the bill for Road Traffic Safety and Traffic Management Board which was introduced in Parliament in 2012. Amendments to the MV Act 1988 were proposed and discussed with the states.

Road safety was given sufficient importance in the report submitted by the National Transport Planning Committee chaired by Rakesh Mohan. However, neither the 2012 bill nor the proposed amendments to MVA 1988 could be finalised. The current government declared road safety as one of the highest priority issues in the first week of its tenure immediately after minister Gopinath Munde was killed in a road crash.

The current draft bill, produced within 100 days, has come with the intention of covering comprehensively different aspects of transport and safety. It has provisions for strengthening institutional mechanisms, ensuring safety of vulnerable road users, addressing the issue of infrastructure design and aspects of inter-modality. 

A closer look at the contents of the new bill shows that it has incorporated aspects and ideas from three previous documents: the MVA amendments suggested by Sundar committee; establishing Vehicle Regulation and Road Safety Authority which has similarities with the Traffic Management  and Safety Board Bill 2012; and National Road Transport and Multimodal Co-ordination Authority which is similar to the proposal of the report submitted by Rakesh Mohan committee in March 2014. 

While the Vehicle Regulation National Road safety authority has brought all aspects of vehicles - road worthiness, crash worthiness and vehicle pollution and energy efficiency standards, under one authority, the jurisdiction and responsibilities of states and city municipalities is not clear.

The three authorities proposed in the current bill have similar structure and work through expert committees. However, the bill is silent on creating permanent expertise and research groups which can support the working committees. In the absence of permanent expertise, the authorities will continue to function based on “intuitions and common sense” of the committee members. This has proven detrimental to improving safety in the country in the last 60 years.

Addressing safety components

International experience has shown that unless safety policies and strategies are based on “good data”, continuously evaluated and extensively researched safety of transport system does not improve. The draft attempts to address the three components of traffic safety-the vehicle, the driver and the road infrastructure. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on “improving” the driver behaviour through enhanced penalties, strict licensing procedures and driver training.

The notion of enhanced penalties as a deterrent is based on the premise that drivers are basically careless and do not care about traffic laws. Hence, the increased penalties and fines supposedly deter them from breaking laws. On the other hand, there is every possibility that drivers who actually break laws will not stop to pay fines and law enforcers may not report cases. Drivers may find it easier to “settle” the case for much smaller amount.

The enforcement of traffic laws is important for safe operations of traffic system. But, instead of relying on higher fines, the emphasis has to be on improving the enforcement and increasing the chances of getting caught in case of traffic violations with the help of technology and intelligent use of police force. The bill proposes fine of Rs 1 lakh and four year jail term for fatal crash and in case of child fatality, it is increased to Rs, 3,00,000 and a jail term of seven years.

Traffic fatalities are not registered as a criminal case in most countries, especially the countries where traffic safety has improved in the last three decades (West Europe, North America, Japan, Australia). Fatal crash is a serious matter and it has to be investigated thoroughly to establish all contributing factors. The case is heard in the court of law and it is for the judge to decide what should be the quantity and severity of fine. Inclusion of these suggestions in the bill does not serve any useful purpose.

The bill also has a detailed format for accident investigation. Detailed format suggested in the bill will not improve data collection at the primary level. Traffic police need simpler format.

Similarly, promotion of mass transport systems like Bus Rapid Transit Systems find mention in the bill, but there is no clarity how this can be done at a national level. Can national government formulate mandatory policies and road designs standards for cities and states? Is it desirable? How does one ensure enforcement and monitoring of such laws at a local level?

Proposed institutional mechanisms lack permanent experts, overemphasis on driver training will benefit the operators of driver training schools and stricter penalties and the current format of data collection will distort data. Overall, the current bill is a weak attempt to address the issue of traffic safety in totality.

(The writer teaches at IIT, Delhi)

Published 07 October 2014, 18:05 IST

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