Why India’s new traffic law failed to curb road accidents

  • Barring some major cities, the fear of hefty traffic fines last year was short-lived, new data on road accidents suggests

Tanay Sukumar
Updated13 Oct 2020
Road accidents cost India dearly. The age group of 18 to 45 is involved in 70% of them, shows government data. Photo: PTI
Road accidents cost India dearly. The age group of 18 to 45 is involved in 70% of them, shows government data. Photo: PTI

Just over a year ago, dramatic traffic penalties under the amended Motor Vehicles Act made headlines across the country. The centre claimed the fines would curb road accidents. But latest government data show the reality was mixed and the fear of the law may have fizzled out quite soon.

A total of 154,732 people died on Indian roads in 437,396 accidents last year, the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB’s) latest update shows. Around 139,000 of these accidents took place after the increased penalties kicked in on 1 September, 2019. Compared to the same period in 2018, this was a 4% drop.

But a closer look shows the decline was the sharpest (7.5%) in September, and began tapering October onward. A year-on-year comparison adjusts for seasonal effects since September anyway sees the fewest road accidents every year.

The NCRB gets the data on accidents and accidental deaths from state police bureaus. Due to underreporting, actual death counts could be 47-63% higher than official data, according to IIT Delhi’s Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme.

The World Health Organization’s estimate of accident deaths in India in 2016 was two times the government tally. This analysis focuses largely on accidents in cities, where reporting is typically better.

“When the new law was announced, a lot of people suddenly started behaving on the road, such as stopping much before the zebra crossing and so on,” said Piyush Tewari, chief executive officer of road safety nonprofit SaveLIFE Foundation. But within weeks, the deterrence factor got lost, and the situation has “gone back to what it was”, he said.

Kamal Soi, a member of the centre’s National Road Safety Council, agreed the impact fizzled out “a little” and said enforcement agencies needed to keep up the momentum. Results can be expected only if the rules are enforced rigorously for at least 18 months, he said.

Gaps in implementation varied by state. Some of the most accident-prone cities and states reported a more sustained decline September onwards, but others did not. Due to public anger and political concerns, some states—even those ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party—decided to delay or reduce the fines. For instance, Gujarat’s penalties are lower than the centrally mandated ones, and Odisha implemented them only in March 2020.

States have to “enforce the rules not for the central government, but for their own citizens”, Soi said. “States that are not applying it are risking lives,” he added.

Deaths due to dangerous driving and overspeeding—the biggest killers on Indian roads— increased in 2019. As many as 128,798 people lost their lives due to dangerous driving and overspeeding—83% of all road accident deaths, the NCRB data showed. This was a 2.2% rise since 2018.

In the new regime, the recommended penalty for overspeeding ranges between 1,000 and 4,000, depending on vehicle type. Dangerous driving is punishable with at least six months in prison, or a fine of 1,000 to 10,000, or both.

But only three of the six most accident-prone states—Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh—were able to reduce accidents due to dangerous driving and overspeeding. These three states, along with Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala, report the most road accidents year after year. Last year, these six accounted for 58% of all road accidents in India.

Most road accident deaths take place on national and state highways, even though they make up just about 5% of the Indian road network. In India’s 53 most populous cities, highways have a 42% share in accident deaths, but this rises to 62% in the rest of India, shows the data. This could be because of higher traffic density in cities, leading to lower speeds, Soi said.

There were 113 accidents for each 100 km of national highways, 61 on state highways, and just four on other roads.

The risk on highways can be mitigated through electronic enforcement, which is mandated by the Section 136A of the Motor Vehicles Act, and touted by the centre as one of the key features of the 2019 amendments. But very few states are using it, Tewari said.

Road accidents cost India dearly. The age group of 18 to 45 is involved in 70% of them, shows government data.

If India can halve the casualties in road accidents for 24 years, it can improve its per capita income by 14%, according to the World Bank.

India’s union roads minister Nitin Gadkari may have hoped that the new law will act as a strong deterrent. But the resistance from the rest of the political establishment seems to have diluted its impact. This year, the pandemic-induced lockdown may have saved many lives by taking traffic off our roads. But as traffic returns to usual levels across cities, the risks of accidental deaths are also likely to rise.

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