Motor Vehicles Act 2019: Concerns over extreme penalties, but India's road accident figures paint a scary picture

The Motor Vehicles Act 2019 has led to major protests across the country. However, in India, 17 deaths occur due to road accidents every hour. Image credit: By Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19879102

Union Minister for Road Transport, Nitin Gadkari has expressed his inability to understand the ongoing protests against the Motor Vehicles Act 2019, which provides for hefty fines and penalties on traffic violators. Gadkari and the Centre have justified the Act stating that the heavy penalties are a means of reducing road accidents.

Ever since the Motor Vehicles Act 2019 came into effect on September, a number of motorists have been penalised heavily, leading to widespread discontent. Many motorists have refused to comply with the fines, while in one case a man even set his bike on fire, after being fined.

Following protests, states such as Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh, have decided not to implement the new Act, while others, including BJP rules ones such as Gujarat and Uttarakhand, Odisha and Maharashtra have reduced the penalty amounts.

Lives snuffed out

India is a signatory of the Brasilia Declaration on Road Safety which pledges to halve the number of deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents by 2020. Apart from calling for rethinking transport policies to favour more sustainable modes of transport, such as using public transport, walking or cycling, it also aims to ensure road safety by improving laws and enforcement, making roads safer and enhancing emergency trauma care systems.

However, the target set in the Brasilia Declaration seems difficult to achieve, especially in the case of India. As per the latest figures from the Road Transport Ministry, in 2017, there were around 4,64,910 road accidents, which resulted in 1,47,913 deaths. Further, every day, there are around 1,274 accidents and 405 deaths. This amounts to 53 accidents and 17 deaths every hour in the country.

If we put these numbers into perspective, the total number of people killed in road accidents in India in a year is equivalent to the population of an entire small city – Shillong, for example, has a population of 1.43 lakhs.

Two-wheeler riders are at the highest risk of getting killed in a road accident – in 2017, the percentage of two-wheel riders involved in accidents was 33 per cent. 13.8 per cent pedestrian road-users were also killed in road accidents in 2017.

Among the states, Tamil Nadu has the highest number of road accidents in the country, at 66,562 for 2017, or 14.1 per cent of the total road accidents in the country. This is followed by Madhya Pradesh (53,399 or 11.5 per cent), Karnataka (42,542 or 9.2) per cent, Uttar Pradesh (38,783 and 8,3 per cent) and Kerala (38,470 and 8.3 per cent) round up the top five.

People may be complaining about hefty fines, however, the data is proof of how motorists in India disregard rules. In 2017, over-speeding killed the most number of people – 76.7 per cent of the total accidents, while driving on the wrong side resulted in 73.1 per cent of total deaths. Violation of other rules, such as drunken driving and jumping red lights, and using mobile phones while driving, accounted for just 6.2 per cent accidents and 6.5 deaths.

Accidents have huge economical costs as well - 87.2 per cent of people in the total road accident fatalities in 2017 were in the working-age group of 18-60, with young adults in the age group of 18-45 years comprised the majority (72.1) per cent of road accident death victims.

As per statistics from the Road Transport Ministry, India has a road density of 1.7 km/sq.km of area – higher than many developed countries, however paved surface, at 62.5 per cent, is lower than that of many developed countries. While the National Highways account for about 2 per cent of the total road network in the country, 30.4 per cent of the accidents and 36 per cent of deaths happen on the country’s NHs. This could be attributed to higher volumes of traffic and higher speeds – 40 per cent of the total traffic is carried by the NHs. Accidents on state highways accounted for 25 per cent and fatalities for 26.9 per cent.

While the 2017 figures were better than the previous year’s one, the reduction is not significant enough – while road accidents in 2017 decreased by 3.27 per cent as compared to 2016 ( 4,80,652), fatalities reduced by just 1.9 per cent (1,50,785 in 2016). The 10-year figures in terms of the total number of accidents in India from 2007 to 2017 also show only a marginal reduction – from 4.74 lakhs in 2007 to 4.64 lakhs in 2017. What is alarming, however, is that the fatality rates have increased in the 10-year period – from 1.14 lakhs to 1.48 lakhs.

These statistics prove that while the fines under the MVA 2019 may be too steep and there is an urgent need to look at improving road infrastructure to make it safer, along with finding other innovative solutions, the fact remains that reckless driving in India is more the norm than the exception. The question now remains, will these fines prove to be a deterrent to flouting traffic rules?