A law to make our roads safer

A law to make our roads safer

Safer Roads: The Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Bill seeks to bring order to our chaotic roads.

Last year, close to 1.5 lakh people lost their lives on Indian roads in accidents. Those deaths, and the even higher number of injured, also impact the economic productivity and expenditure of the nation. (DH File Photo)

It will not be wrong to say that India has the most killer roads in the world. That’s because even with less than 2% of the total number of motor vehicles globally, India accounts for over 10% of the world’s road accident deaths. Last year, close to 1.5 lakh people lost their lives on Indian roads in accidents. Those deaths, and the even higher number of injured, also impact the economic productivity and expenditure of the nation. A study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) estimated that India loses 3% of its GDP every year due to road traffic injuries. 

Countries that have done well in reducing road traffic deaths have always had strong legislation. The Motor Vehicles (MV) Act of 1988 governs road safety in India currently. Most of the provisions of the Act revolve around the movement of goods and passengers. Considerations of road safety were missed. When the MV Act came into force, India was losing around 36,000 lives annually due to road accidents. Today, with the huge growth in the number of cars, two-wheelers, buses and commercial vehicles, that number is more than four times what it was in 1988. This clearly shows that the MV Act 1988 could do little to improve safety on Indian roads.

Taking cognizance of this issue – and triggered by the unfortunate death of Gopinath Munde, the then rural development minister, in a road accident in Delhi -- the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) came up with the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) (MVA) Bill. The MVA Bill was first passed by the Lok Sabha in April 2017, but the Rajya Sabha then sent it to a parliamentary committee. It was re-introduced in the Rajya Sabha for discussion in July 2018 after taking account of the committee’s recommendations. However, the Bill could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha as many Opposition parties opposed the Bill.

Now that the Narendra Modi government is back in power, Nitin Gadkari, the Minister for Road Transport and Highways, has re-introduced the Bill in the Lok Sabha. While it will once again easily pass in the Lok Sabha, some Opposition parties are looking to oppose it and so it may once again stumble in the Upper House.

Politics aside, the question is, will the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill 2019 improve safety on Indian roads? The short answer is, ‘Yes’. However, to better understand this question, we first need to look at the provisions of the MVA Bill on the three main constituents of road safety -- road users, motor vehicles and road infrastructure.

Road Users

One of the key -- and naturally the most talked-about -- provisions of the Bill is the enhanced penalties. This is because currently the penalties for many traffic offences are so low that violators find it easier to pay their way through than to observe traffic rules. The enhanced penalties are expected to act as a deterrent to rule violations and hence improve road safety.

The Bill also proposes cashless treatment for victims of traffic accidents, with an aim to ensure that such treatment is given within the ‘golden hour’. It provides for interim relief to the kin of victims seeking compensation under insurance. It also raises the compensation amount for hit-and-run cases. The Bill also seeks to protect the ‘Good Samaritan’ – anyone who assists an accident victim to obtain emergency medical or non-medical support -- from any civil or criminal action that may arise due to injury or death of a victim on account of any negligence in assisting the accident victim. For offences committed by juveniles, the Bill proposes that the guardian/owner of the vehicles would be deemed guilty, thus seeking to deter this particular type of violation of rules.  

Motor Vehicles

The Bill allows the central government to ask the manufacturer to recall motor vehicles if they could potentially damage the health and safety of road users. It empowers the central government to levy penalties on vehicle manufacturers, including requiring improvements, if they fail to meet motor vehicle standards. It provides mechanisms for recognizing taxi aggregators like Uber, Ola, etc. It empowers the states to issue licences to these service providers and brings them under the Information Technology Act, 2000. The Bill makes a provision for the central government to create a Motor Vehicle Accident Fund. This fund will provide compulsory insurance to all road users in India. The fund will pay for treatment of victims, compensation to their kin, etc. Therefore, the provision should lead to safer vehicles on the road.

Road Infrastructure

The biggest differentiator of this Bill is the provision around infrastructure. For example, if the agencies, contractor or even consultant fails to provide, design or maintain safe roads, the government can penalize them with fines amounting to Rs 1 lakh. The Bill also proposes to create a national road safety board with representation from the state governments. The board will advise central and state governments on matters of road safety and traffic management. One of the key components includes the formulation of standards for road safety, road infrastructure and traffic control. The Bill also allows the central government to come up with a national transport policy. The policy will help develop a framework for planning, granting permits and priorities for the road transport sector. These important provisions should lead to safer road infrastructure for users.

Therefore, the MVA Bill has strong provisions. However, since the Bill is now set to come up for discussion in Lok Sabha, it can be strengthened further, and this is what political parties should focus on, rather than simply opposing the entire Bill.

For example, the provision for a National Road Safety Board can be replaced with one to establish a National Road Safety Authority. That’s because an ‘authority’ would have greater power than a ‘board’, which is only recommendatory in nature. Another important addition to consider would be a National Traffic Crash Database of all fatal and serious injury crashes, along with the geocoded location. This would be extremely useful in identifying high-risk roads and blackspots for treatment.

Last, but not the least, are the provisions required for the scientific investigation of traffic crashes. Currently, traffic crashes are not investigated in a scientific manner, resulting in skewed data that is of no use. A scientific analysis will give good data that can be acted upon. If you are, like many others, concerned about the road safety situation in India, you should be following the discussion on the Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Bill in Parliament. One thing is for sure: India has lost far too many lives on its roads, and it can’t afford to lose anymore.

(The writer is Director -- Integrated Transport, Sustainable Cities, World Resources Institute India)


Fines are so low today, they don’t deter violators

Enhanced penalties will work only if enforced honestly