Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Excessive fines will not improve driver behaviour on our roads

India’s roads are dangerous. Anyone who is up and about in traffic can personally vouch for it, with little need for statistics. The reported numbers are horrific. India’s fatality rate is 12 per 100,000, which tops the table of large countries by a margin. Road fatalities easily make the top 10 causes of death, behind only ischaemic heart fatalities and lung diseases and ahead of diabetes. India’s roads are tense passageways filled with indiscipline, anger and a decidedly uncharacteristic sense of urgency.

Small wonder that policymakers and citizens alike are thinking about how to make driving less dangerous. Any system that works for the collective good requires a framework based on principles, a consequent set of rules, and adequate punishment for violations. In theory, punishment serves the principles of justice and deterrence.

Around the world, rules for motor vehicles and driver behaviour have been in force for a century. Left-side driving evolved from an earlier era of right-handed swordsmen on horseback. Right-side driving began in America’s west, where the waggoner with the right-handed whip also kept track of its wheels. Traffic lights, lane driving, stop signs, one ways, parking signs and speed limits have evolved over the years to ease traffic flow, promote better driver behaviour and improve safety. Drunk-driving laws and rules for driving while distracted by a mobile phone are more recent additions.

Driving laws in democracies exist within a constitutional framework meant to promote the public good while allowing for the individual right to appeal and the right to be safeguarded against the arbitrary exercise of governmental authority. To promote “appropriate" behaviour among its citizens, a government may be tempted to steadily increase the punishment, both in terms of fines and jail time. As an example, authorities could impound a car if the driver skips a red light. In addition, it could attract six months of jail time. If that were to be the case, we would soon need very large impound parking lots and jails to house all the violators, but the biggest issue would be unambiguous evidence of the violation in the first place. “Excessive punishment" would create a legal quagmire of appeals. In practice, given the outsized penalty, you would have to add the likelihood that drivers would try to bribe their way out of trouble. Underpaid policeman would be tempted to accept such bribes.

Some constitutions, such as the US constitution, grant the citizenry the right not to be excessively fined. The Eighth Amendment, adopted as part of the Bill of Rights in the US, and modelled on the earlier English Bill of Rights (1689), declares “that excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted". This right is usually linked to an individual’s right to property and the constitutional assurance that this property will not be usurped without due and appropriate cause. In the Indian Constitution, the right to property has had a chequered history and has been downgraded from a fundamental right via the 44th amendment. The semantic interpretation of the word “property" has also been generally narrower, and primarily represents land rather than assets.

The amended Motor Vehicles Act (2019) was passed by Indian Parliament during the monsoon session. The act significantly enhances penalties for most driver errors and adds new categories of penalties. Policymakers appear to have followed University of Chicago professor Gary Becker’s proposition (1968) based on the rational utility theory that says that the severest possible penalty with the lowest possible probability is the most effective way to deter crime. The fine for driving without a licence has been increased from 500 to 5,000, that for driving despite disqualification has risen from 500 to 10,000, and “dangerous driving", which previously was not listed, attracts both a prison term and a fine. If a minor is caught driving your car, the car’s registration is suspended for a year and a fine of 25,000 imposed. The owner could also face three years in jail.

All this is very well, but the real cost of compliance is likely to fall on those who follow rules generally. As with most punishment in India, those who make the rare error of omission or commission will likely be held to account while habitual offenders will get away scot free, either by bribing their way out of the situation or simply absconding. Draconian fines are a bad idea in a porous country such as India. They are unlikely to prevent bad driver behaviour. Worse, they are likely to encourage rent-seeking behaviour.

A far better system, one suggested by the behavioural economics of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, would be to be systematic in the approach to driver discipline. Frequent, consistent, comprehensive and modest fines for bad driver behaviour are much more likely to be considered fair and more likely to deliver the desired results. A system that delivers a 100 fine 10 times will likely be a more effective than one that imposes 1,000 less often. A consistently and comprehensively applied system, rather than a draconian one, is what India’s dangerous roads need.

PS: “People are irrational, and predictably so," says behavioural economist Dan Ariely. My addendum: “Intervene often".

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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