The Pune drunken driving case that led to the death of two people has captured media attention but deaths and accidents by drunken driving are an all-too-frequent occurrence India.

According to government data, drunken driving led to 5,122 accidents and 2,376 fatalities in 2019. This amounts to nearly seven deaths every single day.

In spite of the high number of such deaths, the penalties for drunken driving are much less harsh than the punishment laid down in criminal law for killing a person.

Why does drunken driving attracts a lighter penalty in India than the crime does in other parts of the world?

What does the law say?

In India, under the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 any person driving a vehicle who has alcohol exceeding 30 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood is said to be guilty of drunken driving.

According to Section 185 of the act, if a person is caught driving or attempting to drive a vehicle when drunk, they may be fined up to Rs 10,000 and imprisoned for up to six months. For a subsequent offence, the fine is increased to Rs 15,000 and imprisonment of two years.

Under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, causing death of someone through drunken driving – qualified in as a “rash or negligent act” – is punishable by up to two years in prison or with a fine of any amount or both, according to Section 304A.

That is why even in notorious cases of death by drunken driving, such as the 1999 hit-and-run case in Delhi in which Sanjeev Nanda, the grandson of a former Indian Navy chief and the son of an arms dealer, killed six persons, he was sentenced to only two years in prison.

Under the code, causing grievous injuries while drunk driving – categorised as an “act so [rash] or [negligent] as to endanger human life” – is also punishable with imprisonment for up to two years or with a fine up to Rs 1,000 or both. If a non-grievous injuries are caused due to drunken driving, the penalty is reduced to imprisonment for up to six months and the fine to Rs 500.

Merely engaging in drunken driving in a manner that endangers the personal safety of others, without causing anyone actual harm, attracts imprisonment up to three months or a fine of up to Rs 250 or both.

All these offences are bailable – that is, even when a first information report is registered on a complaint alleging one of these offences and the accused is detained by the police, the accused must be released by the police station on the deposit of bail as a matter of right.

Under the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, 2023 which will replace the Indian Penal Code as India’s primary criminal law from July 1, the penalty for causing death due to drunken driving has been increased to mandatory imprisonment of up to five years, along with a possible fine.

However, if drivers, after killing someone under the influence of alcohol, escape without reporting the accident to the authorities, they shall be punished by imprisonment for up to 10 years, along with a fine.

The penalty for causing grievous injuries while drunk driving has been increased to imprisonment for up to three years or with a with a fine extending to ten thousand rupees or both.

The fine for causing non-grievous injuries while drunk driving has been enhanced to Rs 5,000. The maximum term of imprisonment remains the same – six months.

Similarly, for engaging in drunk driving without hurting someone but in a manner that “endanger[s] human life or the personal safety of others”, the fine has been increased tenfold to Rs 2,500. But the maximum term of imprisonment remains the same – three months.

All these offences, except hit-and-run cases, continue to remain bailable.

Hit-and-run cases are non-bailable offences – that is, the accused, after being detained, has no right to bail. They may apply for it before a court, who may grant it on a discretionary basis.

Why is the punishment so low?

On the other hand, under both the Indian Penal Code and the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, the offence of murder may attract the death penalty and homicide not amounting to murder is punishable by imprisonment for life.

This disparity in punishment hinges on the question of intent.

The offences of murder and culpable homicide are predicated on a high degree of criminal intent. The offence of murder is based on the deliberate intention to kill while that of culpable homicide involves the awareness of a high likelihood of causing death.

On the other hand, death by drunken driving is due to negligence rather than criminal intention. It is the missing intent that results in lighter punishment.

The severe punishment for deliberate acts of violence is meant to act as a social deterrent. The lesser penalty for offences due to negligence aims to reform the offender.

India is an outlier

However, even taking intent into account, the punishment for drunken driving offences in India is less severe than in many other countries.

For instance, in Australia, causing death by drunken driving may lead to imprisonment for up to 20 years.

In the United States, Japan and South Africe, it may lead to imprisonment for up to 15 years and in the United Kingdom, for up to 14 years.

In Canada, France and Singapore, the maximum punishment for this is ten years’ imprisonment.

All these countries also impose severe fines and cancel the convict’s driving licence either permanently or for a long period of time.

While these countries also differentiate drunken driving offences on the basis of intent, they still impose harsh penalties for causing death due to drunken driving. This is reflective of a more serious and punitive approach towards drunken driving, with a greater emphasis on deterrence and public safety than in India.

A recent study by a civil society organisation found that 81.2% of Delhi’s drivers admitted to having driven while drunk.

India accounts for only 1% of the global vehicular traffic but 6% of the world’s road accidents.