New traffic rules: How heavy fines may rein in reckless driving in India

Photo: PTI
What: On September 1, a Sunday, India awoke to an amended Motor Vehicles Act that sent state governments, traffic police and the general public into a tizzy. Motorbike riders began reminiscing fondly about the time they could pay a fine of Rs 100 for not wearing a helmet, while auto rickshaw drivers had to apply long-forgotten brake-application skills every time they had the urge to jump a light. While car drivers began counting the cash in their wallets, pedestrians — the most neglected community of road users — rejoiced. 

The new act revised the fine for helmet-less riding to Rs 1,000. Unlawful but common acts such as jumping a red light or using a handheld phone while driving attracts a penalty of Rs 5,000 and a jail term of up to a year. These hefty fines seemed to have given a great boost to Delhi Traffic Police, for one, as it issued 3,900 challans on the very first day.

How: The reaction to hefty fines in this new, improved Act has been mixed. Just as there were reports of a man in Gurugram being fined Rs 23,000 while riding a scooter worth Rs 15,000 (he doesn’t plan on collecting his impounded scooter any time soon), the internet and newspapers are flooded with op-eds that laud this reform. 

Twitter, as always, was noisy with comments and memes. While a certain Vipul Kumar implored the government to think about the poor, Exsecular 2.0 (his name explains his politics) tweeted, “What is the problem of people complaining of the new #TrafficFine. Amount of money or following rules?” Netizens also began placing demands for better, pothole-less roads, as a quid pro quo for high fines. 

Some state governments expressed their reservations as well. As the Act allows state governments to determine compounding fees for some categories of offence, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot decided to keep penalties low. He said the government will lay “greater stress on increasing public awareness about road safety” before implementing the revised challans. 

The Act also polices the police. “Any authority that is empowered to enforce the provisions of this Act, if such an authority commits an offense...shall be liable for twice the penalty corresponding to that offence,” stated an official order by Meenu Choudhary, Joint Commissioner, Delhi Police (traffic). 

Why: Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari said, “The law has not been imposed to collect fines. It has been brought into force so that people take traffic rules seriously and do not violate them.” Gadkari believes that these fines will help reduce road accidents and increase road safety as close to 150,000 deaths occur annually due to road accidents. 

Now: The concept of deterrence through the threat of punitive action may seem reasonable —thinking twice before breaking traffic rules that may cost you your life is after all a pretty good deal. And other good stuff can ensue too: for instance, 84,000 PUCs (pollution under check) certificates were issued in Delhi in the first three days. The fine for an outdated PUC is now Rs 10,000 or a jail term. But will these heavy fines effectively tackle what is at its core a cultural problem — breaking rules and then paying one’s way out of the situation — in the long run? Or will the effervescence fizzle out?

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