The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act had barely come into effect, on 1 September, than grumbles arose. Now several states are saying the fines prescribed are much too high, and have begun to whittle them down. The whole purpose of imposing steep fines is to deter traffic violations and instill road discipline, and turning them relatively lenient only serves to hurt that objective.

It is true that under India’s federal structure, it is up to individual states to charge what fines they deem fit. Traffic rules are not exclusively for the Centre to legislate. Yet, the problem of messy traffic afflicts the whole country, more or less. According to the World Health Organisation’s Global Status Report on Road Safety 2018, India reported 150,000 road fatalities last year. This figure is shockingly high, but rendered believable by a casual glance at traffic in any crowded urban centre.

The case for leniency is weak, be it in terms of the sums charged or vigilance enforced. The usual calculation made by motorists involves both the penalty of violating a rule and the probability of being caught. Both need to be high. Classic deterrence theory suggests that the violations in general are inversely related to the certainty, severity and swiftness of punishment. In all, states should be wary of prematurely diluting the penalties. If some states do it, others may follow suit—signs of which are already apparent. We do not need competitive penalty devaluations to stilt the efficacy of the new fine structure. Road safety is at stake.

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