Legislation and Government Policy

Heftier Fines to improve road safety? A Study of the changes to The Motor Vehicles Act

Kshitij Goyal

Severe penalties should be complimented with awareness building mechanisms such as workshops, opinion pieces, trainings for civil society groups, truck services and taxi associations. This would help in building a safe, efficient and corruption free transport system in the country.


In this post, the author argues that imposing heftier fines on transgressors under The Motor Vehicles Act is insufficient and unconscionable in the Indian context. India has recently become a signatory to the Brasilia declaration on road safety, to reduce the number of deadly road accidents by half by 2020. This presents an opportunity for India to shed its government’s reckless attitude towards the rising number of road fatalities with renewed vigour.

But given the current scenario, at best, it looks like a pipeline dream. Statistically speaking, in the time it will take you to read this article, at least eight will be injured and another two will be killed in road mishaps in India. Majority of the deceased are in the age group of 18-45 years, which is the most productive age group. As per the latest government figures in 2017 alone, one lakh forty-seven thousand nine hundred and thirteen people were killed in one calendar year. For perspective, this is 37.54 per cent more than the total number of people killed in heavy rains and floods since India attained independence.[1]

Would balancing the delinquency with heftier fines suffice?

But will the recent decision of the government to levy heavy fines work? Fresh data reveals that hefty traffic fines causes a spike in insurance applications. In addition, longer queues are observed at pollution testing centres. But skeptics abound too.[2]  Experts opine that the fines ought to be the last measure in the list of measures since it targets the weakest section of the population, leaving aside every other infrastructural aspect unaddressed. It is an exemplary punishment. States have been granted the powers to increase penalties for compoundable offences by bringing into effect a multiplier between 1 and 10 for each fine prescribed.

Notably, a sizeable number of traffic violations happen because of faulty traffic signals. According to a study by IRTE, more than 75 per cent of the traffic signage are faulty in the National Capital Delhi. IRTE’s study is focused on 14 major roads in Delhi, having a total length of 85 km with total 1,514 traffic signals.[3] The study concluded that the size, shape and colour of traffic lights have been used interchangeably, which result in unknowing  traffic violations.

It is likely that the government does not want to pay heed to the fact that poor conditions of the road are also to blame for the poor traffic conditions across the country. The government thinks that just imposing heavy fines will get the traffic rules enforced and curb traffic. In terms of a long-term solution, this is not adequate. Heftier fines should act as a deterrent in theory. But in practice, this is far from the reality. Heftier penalties could simply result in rent-seeking as drivers may pay off authorities to avoid fines or simply abscond. According to The Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme (TRIPP), the experience with heftier fines has not had any impact on driver’s behavior and there has been a decrease in the overall enforcement of penalties.[4] India’s enforcement level was rated as ‘fairly weak’ according to the WHO’s global report which measures the enforcement levels across the world.[5]

A possible way to remedy this is through the use of technology such as in-vehicle sensors and speed cameras. The prescription for road safety policy by the United Nations places emphasis on 5 primary areas: developing safe infrastructure, improving road safety management, rolling out safer cars, improving post-crash rate, and changing road-user behaviour.[6] The new Act brings high penalties and stringent norms for violations like over speeding, driving without license, riding without helmets, speeding, and so on. It also includes a provision that introduces a compulsory automated fitness test for vehicles. This proposal would improve road worthiness of the vehicle and reduce corruption in the transport department. However, all these steps seem to place all obligations on the citizens themselves.

According to the psychologists, punishment may modify the behaviour of humans under certain circumstances. The punishment is effective in abating the forbidden behaviour when motivation to indulge in this behaviour is low, or, even if it is high, when alternative modes of behaviour could be used for reaching the desired goal. When punishment is severe and certain, behaviour can be changed in some of the situations even though the alternative modes of behaviour are not available and the behaviour is highly motivated.[7] Deterrence theory proposes that an offender will engage in the crime only if he believes that the benefits that he will derive from committing the crime outweigh the costs connected to legal sanctioning if caught. It is based on a rational pyramid of decision making.[8] In the case of traffic rules violations, even the stricter penalties will not deter habitual offenders from violating traffic rules. In the case of traffic rules violations, the chances of getting away by paying bribes are high. So, the detection rate is very low.

Also, in the past, several accidents are caused due to the faulty roads and potholes. So, there is also a dire need to improve the road design through design corrections. It requires efforts on part of both sides including the government authorities and the citizens to ensure better construction of roads and no recklessness on the citizen’s side respectively.

Synopsis of the Act coupled with its fault lines

The Centre has inserted the provision to regulate the licensing of cab aggregators such as Uber and Ola, by introducing the definition of “aggregator” under Section 2(1A) and by amending Section 93. Some key aspects of this move are: developing a framework for granting permits, scaling up public transport in rural areas and cities by way of new category of permit, empowering the government to ask manufacturers to call back the motor vehicles if they have the potential to endanger the safety and health of the road users, making driving tests technologically driven to curb corruption, regulating the cab aggregators, enhancing penalties as a deterrent to traffic violations, creating a Motor Vehicles Accident Fund that provides a compulsory insurance to a road user, and last but not least protecting “Good Samaritans”.

While these positives are encouraging, some key issues which remain are: the purpose of the new Accident Fund is itself unclear as the existing provision is already in place to provide compensation in hit and run cases. In addition, there can be cases in the future where the state taxi guidelines are at variance with the Central guidelines on Cab aggregators as states are also empowered to make guidelines on this issue.


In my opinion, severe penalties should be complimented with awareness building mechanisms such workshops, opinion pieces, trainings for civil society groups, truck services and taxi associations. This would help in building a safe, efficient and corruption free transport system in the country. At the end of the day, India requires a stiffer penalty mechanism to deter people from flouting the law, as seen in most cases. But this should be coupled with measures taken by the government, to ensure safer roads, good quality construction and maintenance standards, and apt precautionary measures to reduce the number of mishaps on road. The need of the hour for the government is to step up by assuming its responsibility and not merely by passing the buck.

[1]Shir Kal Singh, Road Accidents, Persons killed and Injured and injured from 1970-2017, NDSAP (25 April,201911:00),https://data.gov.in/resources/road-accidents-persons-killed-and-injured-1970-2017.

[2]Simar Singh, 60% of Vehicles aren’t insured, NDTV (11 December,2017,12:59), https://sites.ndtv.com/roadsafety/60-of-vehicles-in-india-are-not-insured-and-most-of-these-are-two-wheelers-3027/.

[3]PTI, In Delhi, following road signs might land you in jail, E.T (June 28,2017,19:32), https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/in-delhi-following-road-signs-might-land-you-in-jail/articleshow/59355969.cms?from=mdr.

[4]Sneha Alexander, Vishnu Padmanabhan, Will hefty traffic fines improve road safety, livemint (Sep 18,2019,12:53), https://www.livemint.com/news/india/will-hefty-traffic-fines-improve-road-safety-1568790001634.html.

[5]Amrita Kansal, Violence and Injury Prevention, W.H.O (Dec 29,2013, 18:00),https://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_traffic/countrywork/ind/en/.

[6]UNDSS, Road Safety Strategy, UN (Feb 26,2019, 15:00), https://www.un.org/undss/sites/www.un.org.undss/files/general/road_safety_strategy_-_booklet.pdf.

[7]Roger C. Cramton, Driver behavior and legal sanctions, CLFP.1,2(1969).

[8]Steve Moffatt, Suzanne Poynton, The deterrent effect of higher fines on recidivism, 106. NSW. 1, 2(2007).

Kshitij is a first year student at NLSIU Bangalore.

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