Pick up a newspaper, any newspaper, any day, and somewhere somebody must have died in a road accident. Whether it is a case of drunken driving where a speeding car has run over innocent people or a case of collision where several lives are lost– road fatalities are a brute reality of our daily life.
Every year nearly 1.5 lakh people die in road accidents in India, something equivalent to an entire Indian city becoming a ghost town overnight.
And most of the lives lost are in the age group 18-35 years, many of them sole breadwinners. Traffic safety had, thus, become an imperative and stringent rules its extension. On September 1, the stringent rules kicked in.
And what one saw was a rush at petrol pumps to get pollution control certificates, long queues at regional transport offices (RTOs) for driving licences and overzealous traffic police going about challaning traffic violators hefty fines. On the first day of the new Motor Vehicles Act coming into force, a scooterist from Delhi was fined Rs 23,000 by the Gurugram Police for flouting several rules, such as driving without licence and a registration certificate and violating air pollution norms.
On the third day, a truck driver was challaned Rs 59, 000 in the heart of Gurugram for violating traffic rules, including jumping a traffic light and trying to run away.
In three days, more than 2,500 motorists were issued challans in the Haryana capital, many of them fined between Rs 20,000 and Rs 30,000.
For many, the prospect of paying Rs 10,000 fine or a jail term was deterrent enough to speed up to a petrol pump for a pollution control (PUC) certificate. Earlier the fine for such violations was Rs 1,000 for first offence, and Rs 2,000 for subsequent. Now the fine has increased ten-fold with an added jail term.
In Delhi, there a four-fold increase in the number of vehicles lining up at petrol pumps for PUC certificate, while the number of applicants applying for renewal of driving licences, getting duplicate ones or applying for new ones rose by 50-60 per cent at RTOs. For traffic violations, as many as 3,900 challans were issued on day 1.
In Noida, UP, many vehicle owners, particularly those who commute to Delhi, made a beeline at PUC centres, which was double the usual number.
The spurt in the number of vehicle owners scrambling for PUC certificate is a welcome step in the age of rising pollution, with Indian cities ranking among the most polluted in the world. So is the new rule that holds the guardian or owner of the vehicle guilty if the driver of the while is underage, with penalty of Rs. 25,000 along with three years in jail and cancellation of the registration. The guardian cannot go scot-free. He has to take responsibility.
Many a road accidents also occur with youngsters driving fast cars at high speed returning from parties or bars under the influence of alcohol. The new penalty for driving under the influence of alcohol– increased from Rs 2,000 to Rs 10,000 or six months of imprisonment– should, hopefully, put the brakes on those youngsters.
But some have highlighted the absurdities of such hefty fines for minor offences, with the scooterist, who was fined Rs 23,000, pointing out that the scooter he was driving was not more than Rs 18,000.
The twitter has also gone abuzz with memes and jokes about the new traffic rules and hefty fines, with one joke about a wife blackmailing her husband who is driving a car to buy her a sari or else she will take off her seat belt.
Under the new law, driving without a seat-belt will attract a penalty of Rs 1,000 from earlier Rs 100. So will that for driving a two-wheeler without a helmet.
But the new rules should be seen against the backdrop of rising road fatalities. Every year, more than 50,000 or a third of road fatalities happen among two-wheeler drivers or riders and the maximum deaths result from head injuries.
But will the hefty fines finally act as deterrent in a country where people are past masters in violating them with impunity? Going by the rush at petrol pumps for PUC certificate or long queues at RTOs for driving licence, one can say with some degree of surety that hefty fines are acting as a deterrent. But what about those violations where a person forgets to wear a seat belt? Or what about rural areas where people don’t wear helmets at all?
People might feel harassed for little fault of theirs and find ways to circumvent the rules. They may wear a helmet but may not fasten it as many a youth do so in small towns and villages. And it is not always the fault of the drivers that accidents take place. Factors such as pathetic conditions of roads and vehicles, poor visibility and poor road design and engineering also play their part.
To reduce road accidents, the roads should also be properly built, road signs carefully installed and traffic lights made to work properly. And above all, the rules should be implemented in a sustained manner.