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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Real-time penalties would help deter traffic violations
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Real-time penalties would help deter traffic violations

The road accident that caused the death of a leading Indian industrialist a few months ago has been discussed a lot

Photo: MintPremium
Photo: Mint

The road accident that caused the death of a leading Indian industrialist a few months ago has been discussed a lot. But in the past few weeks, an intriguing behavioural facet has emerged that could be relevant to that car crash. According to newspaper reports, the driver of the car was issued 11 e-chellans for over-speeding between 2020 to 2022. This in turn raises many new questions. Why did 11 notices not help deter the driver from speeding above the notified limit of that stretch on that fateful day? What type of punishments will help change the behaviour of drivers on our roads?

There are many who believed that the amendment to India’s Motor Vehicles Act in 2019, under which penalties for violating traffic rules had been jacked up, some of them by nearly 10 times the previous amount, would help instil appropriate behaviours in drivers. Around the same time, the e-challan (electronic traffic-violation receipt) system was introduced to fine traffic violators on the spot and collect fine amounts online. But these new initiatives have not really helped make Indian roads safer. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the number of traffic accidents in India has increased from 368,828 in 2020 to 422,659 in 2021, and road mishap fatalities from 133,201 in 2020 to 155,622 in 2021. So it is clear that we still have a long way to go before we make our roads really safe.

A paper titled ‘Analysing Traffic Violations through e-challan System in Metropolitan Cities’ by R. Mishra and others of Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Delhi and IIIT Hyderabad provide some insights on India’s road safety problem. This paper was based on a detailed study of traffic violations in the cities of Ahmedabad and New Delhi through an analysis of e-challans issued in Ahmedabad and New Delhi. This study showed that increasing the penalty amount for violating traffic rules had an effect only for a very limited period of time. In Delhi and Ahmedabad, the new Motor Vehicles Act which effected drastic increases in the penalty for traffic violations was implemented on 1 September 2019. As compared to August 2019, Delhi data shows a 45% decrease in average e-challans that were issued in September. So, no doubt, raising the penalty did have an immediate effect. But the effect did not last long. Within a month, behaviours went back to normal. By November, the average growth rate in traffic violations climbed to 8% per day. Just three months after the new rules, December saw the highest average e-challans per day in 2019.

The same study also found that 57% of the offenders are repeat offenders. Which means despite being issued challans, violators continue their wrong behaviours. The study also found that although e-challans are issued a few days after the violation, people do not pay the amount for a long time. More than 68% of e-challan fines in the study’s sample were pending payment. This clearly means that most of those who are issued e-challans do not immediately feel the pinch of the punishment handed out to them.

How do we improve this penalty system?

One of the oldest theories of human behaviour, the theory of reinforced learning, reminds us that as much as rewards encourage desirable behaviour, punishments help deter unwanted behaviour. Further, punishments are most effective when the time interval between the behaviour’s occurrence and the punishment meted out for it is minimum. So, if the wrongdoer gets the due punishment soon after the wrong behaviour, the person’s mental correlation of the wrong act with the punishment gets strengthened. The strength of this association helps deter such wrong behaviours in future.

Today technology makes it possible that as soon as a wrongdoing on the streets is spotted on camera, an instant notification can go to the wrong-doer that this wrong behaviour has been noticed and the penalty for it will be debited immediately from the violator’s Fast Tag account. The pain of an actual loss of money so close to the violation should make such punishments more reformative.

Any judicial system treats repeat offenders differently from first-time offenders. So, as a driver commits repeated offences on the road, the driver should have penalties that increase with each repetition. A variable scale of punishments will help avoid the problem of a wrong-doer’s mind getting accustomed to a punishment level.

A team from Newcastle University found people put nearly three times as much money into an ‘honesty box’ when they were being watched by a pair of eyes on a poster. This study shows that people behave differently when they believe they are under observation. This study could be applied to put speed cameras on our roads to better use. The message that you are being watched while you drive, as also your vehicle’s speed and the time taken to travel between two points, could help deter plenty of bad traffic behaviour.

The human brain is able to recognize a familiar object within 100 milliseconds. So a natural stimuli such as the pictorial image of eyes can induce a perception in road users of being watched better than an artificial stimulus like the drawing of a camera, and such pictorial signage is surely better than a signboard with a wordy message.

We must do more to make our roads safer. It’s time to consider a real-time punishment system. It will take better coordination between traffic departments and regional transport offices, with some technological support to make it work.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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Published: 28 Dec 2022, 11:31 PM IST
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