Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Opinion | Give accident sufferers a voice against intellectual vandalism

Safety concerns need to be raised more vigorously in the debate on traffic fines so that their hikes win wider acceptance

Road accidents kill more than 150,000 people every year in India. Several studies have shown that road accidents cost most countries 3% of their gross domestic product. The single largest cause of death for those between the age of 15 and 24 is road accidents. So these are the single largest drain on our demographic dividend, the much eulogized advantage of India. One is not able to fully comprehend the real loss caused to the future of the country due to street mishaps, since it is very difficult to evaluate the future potential of those people who lose their lives at such a young age. How come most of the horrific data on road accidents did not come up for discussion during the public debate on the recent increase in traffic fines? The protest against the recently announced hike in financial penalties for traffic offences is nothing short of intellectual vandalism. Those opposing the revised fines have used the principles of behavioural science in a sophisticated way to flay the rule of law. The whole issue of the increase in fines related to traffic offences was reframed as an onslaught by the government on the poor of this country. To buttress their point of view, opponents of the hikes focused only on the quantum of the increase. A few isolated cases, where the fine amounts imposed were more than the cost of the vehicles, made prominent headlines. The fact that the fines were commensurate with the number of illegal acts that users of these vehicles had committed was ignored. The overall mood that was created around the country was as if the prices of some essential food items have been drastically raised.

Most discussions on the fine increases created an impression that only ordinary two-wheeler drivers or auto-rickshaw operators will be affected by this sharp increase in fines. This helped buttress the view that the hikes are an attempt by the government to burden this country’s poor even more.

Those opposing the fine hikes also took recourse to the master stroke that many offenders employ to prevent an accusatory finger pointed at them. They quote the Bible and say let only those who have committed no error cast the first stone. Their argument is the following: Let the government first fill up all the pot holes on the roads, ensure that all traffic signals are in working order, and eradicate corruption among transport officials before imposing fines on ordinary citizens for their small driving offences. The proponents of this argument know very well that the government cannot solve all those problems in the foreseeable future. So, by using this as an excuse, they want to continue with their own unlawful activities.

The government should have done a smarter job with the implementation of its revised traffic fines. This year’s Economic Survey made a mention of using nudges to guide public behaviour. If a nudge unit had been at work for the government, behavioural experts would have helped implement these laws smoothly using the principles of behavioural science.

Categorization is a fundamental process by which the human brain effectively evaluates all incoming stimuli. First of all, the government should have categorized behaviours punishable with fines into those that affect others’ lives, those that affect the driver’s life, and those that pose no threat to life. Driving under the influence of alcohol is an example of the first category, not wearing a seat belt is an example of the second, and running a vehicle without a pollution certificate is an example of the third. No one would have raised a concern if the fines were raised manifold for the first two behaviour categories, as compared to the third category.

One of the most significant steps in the mitigation of smoking behaviour was the ban on smoking in public places. With that move, an individual choice that had only personal consequences was transformed into a problem with social consequences. A behaviour with implications for society puts an even larger responsibility on the individual to act responsibly. Similarly, such behaviours as over-speeding, driving under the influence alcohol, etc., that could harm not just to the individual driver but also to innocent fellow motorists or pedestrians demand the exercise of greater responsibility by the person at the steering wheel. Any increase in fines for those unlawful driving behaviours that have potential social consequences would have surely received applause from people at large.

The discussions on the fine hikes conveniently ignored an important audience—those who have suffered and are suffering because of recklessness on our roads. We did not hear the point of view of those who lost their dear ones in accidents caused by drunk drivers. The discussions were deaf to the voices of mothers who lost children because they didn’t wear helmets. Would these victims of road offences ask for a reduction in fines?

The government should have framed the increase in traffic fines as a significant step in protecting human lives on our roads than just punishing the guilty. The voices of those who have had to suffer the consequences of traffic violations should have been made more prominent. The right of ordinary citizens to drive or walk safely on our streets should have been played up. With this move, the focus of mainstream discussions would have moved to the horrible consequences of unlawful driving, and accusations that the increased fines are a means to raise government revenues by squeezing the poor would not have arisen in the first place.

Recent discussions criticizing the decision of the government to raise traffic fines do not bode well for the future of our country. It was more like a case where the accused was deciding what punishment they should receive for their illicit behaviour. The government should not allow such intellectual vandalism to go on unabated.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm

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