Scene 1: We are returning from Bhagalpur to Patna. A man on a bicycle is riding ahead of us on National Highway 31. Attached to the bicycle, there is a small carrier with freshly-cut vegetables, jutting out two to two-and-a-half feet across. And, the vegetables are stacked so high that you can hardly see the bicycle rider’s shoulders. His speed is so slow that even a toddler can give him competition. Behind the bicycle, there is a long row of crawling vehicles. The reason, there is a continuous flow of traffic from the other side. And, on the left flank, the road has been dug up and overtaking the bicycle rider, riding in the middle of his lane, is next to impossible. Suddenly he falters and falls down, somehow separates himself from the cycle and punches the driver of the vehicle following him. He alleges that hornbaazi (the constant honking) diverted his attention.

Scene 2: Delhi-Dehradun National Highway 58. Right in the middle of the road, a tractor-trolley had turned turtle, and the bricks it was carrying lay scattered. A terrible traffic jam ensues. Along with many other vehicles, an ambulance is stuck in the traffic. People are cursing the police. The truck driver and his companions are lamenting the pitiable condition of the road. The people did not even care to ask the truck driver if the tractor trolley was meant to, or is allowed to, carry such load on the national highway.

Scene 3: On 26 April, I slipped and fell inside a TV newsroom in Noida. I had a fractured foot. An ambulance was called, but it took more than 30 minutes to cover the four-kilometre distance to the hospital. The reason: Unruly traffic—vehicles coming from the opposite/wrong direction, irrational speed breakers and insensitive co-commuters. I can’t express how this cruel condition aggravated the deep pain.

Indian roads have become synonymous with chaos, anarchy and accidents. According to a study, more than 150,000 people lose their lives, and a lot more are seriously injured every year due to road accidents. The injured include some of those who can’t be cured by the medical sciences—they live in agony for the rest of their lives. But, when the traffic laws are being made stricter to deal with such issues, it is being opposed. By opposing these rules aren’t we promoting accidents? Doesn’t matter if anyone does it or not, but I do support these reforms aimed at making roads safer.

The laws in our country are shabby and, moreover, complying with them is almost impossible. The previous Motor Vehicle Act, which was in force till last month, was implemented in 1989. The conditions have gone through a lot of changes since then. In 1991, the total number of cars on Indian roads was 1.9 million, which has now risen to 250 million. If you remember the Ambassador and Fiat cars of those times, you will realise that there is a huge change in the quality and speed of the vehicles now.

Besides, the number of national highways has also increased and, for the first time, expressways have been developed. In such a scenario, people who are fond of speeding often become the cause of accidents. It is not that the speed limit in the new law does not conform to international standards. The speed limit of 50km to 120km per hour has been set on various roads. Earlier it was 30km to 65km. But why will the people in the habit of high speed conform to it?

Incidentally, it is worth noting that since 1989 there has been a severe devaluation of the rupee.

Thirty years ago, the rupee was 16-17 to a dollar. It has depreciated more than four times now. It is clear that year after year, we were paying lower fines than in 1989. If we increase the prices of our products, aspire for higher wages, pay more for the things we need due to inflation, then why does this rule not apply to crime and punishment?

Those who know are aware of the fact that violations of traffic rules have far less penalty in India than in all the Western countries. For example, a violation of the speed limit in Virginia, US, can lead to a penalty of 12 months imprisonment, along with a fine of 1.8 lakh, whereas there is a provision of a maximum fine of 4,000 for the same violation under the new rule in India. In Britain, three penalty points are filed along with a fine of 9,000 for violating the same rule.

There are plenty of such examples, but even the educated have problems appreciating the much needed reforms. And, these laws are meant to educate them. Instead of opposing the new rules, we should welcome them.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.

The views expressed are personal.

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