On Wednesday, my WhatsApp and social media accounts were buzzing with messages that the Union Cabinet had approved the Road Transport and Safety Bill. While this sounded very exciting, especially for someone like me who has been working with road safety and urban transport issues for close to 15 years, I felt a sense of dismay looking at the messages. This is because ever since I started my career in 2002, I have seen numerous such moments of excitement but without any change on the ground. The only thing that has actually changed in all these years is that road traffic fatalities have risen from 80,000 every year to over 140,000 a year – a mind-boggling 380-odd deaths a day.

It’s not like nothing has been attempted. Numerous committees, working groups, subcommittees have been created – yet nothing has changed on the ground.

A push towards road safety

However, the death of Union minister Gopinath Munde in a road accident in 2014 was a massive trigger towards recognising that India needed safer roads.

Munde’s death resulted in the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways coming up with the draft Road Transport and Safety Bill, which was put in the public domain in August 2014 for comments and suggestions.

The draft bill presented a paradigm shift – from merely looking at governing the movement and operation of motor vehicles to actively addressing the interests of all road users along with substantive provisions to improve the transport sector overall.

But the Bill never made it to the Cabinet, leave alone Parliament, as it witnessed severe resistance from states that viewed it as very top down. States were also anxious that they would lose power and revenue.

By 9 pm on Wednesday, it was clear that the government had approved amendments to the existing Motor Vehicle Act, 1988, and wasn’t considering an entirely new Act as the buzz was about.

I’d say this is a fair move as introducing a new Bill and getting it passed is a long-drawn process as we have recently seen with the Goods and Services Tax saga.

The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, which replaced one that was drafted in 1939, was introduced just as economic reforms had just started.

The motor vehicle industry growth and their numbers were not significant, and therefore, it can be assumed that most of the Act focused on facilitating the growth of motor vehicles, while safety was mostly an afterthought.

An international commitment

Last November, India signed the Brasilia Declaration on Road Safety, which was organised as part of the United Nations’ decade of action for road safety that runs from 2011 to 2020. By signing the declaration, India agreed to halve road traffic deaths by the end of 2020, which is a key milestone within the new Sustainable Development Goals.

The government soon realised that this ambitious target of a 50% reduction in road traffic deaths would not be achieved with the current legal framework and with the opposition by states to the Road Transport and Safety Bill.

However, the new approach of setting up a group of state transport ministers worked wonders, and the issue now doesn’t only have the support of the states and Opposition parties but has a much better chance of seeing the light of day.

The full draft of the amendments is still not out in the public domain but the information shared by the ministry so far suggests that most of the provisions of the Road Transport and Safety Bill have been brought back as amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act. Some of the key provisions involving road safety in the amended Act include:

  1. Traffic fines as a deterrent: The bill proposes to increase traffic fines so that they act as a deterrent. For instance, the fine for drunken driving has been increased fivefold to Rs 10,000, and driving without a licence to Rs 5,000 from Rs 500 earlier. However, the quantum of fines in certain categories have been reduced from the proposed Road Transport Safety Bill. This balancing is good, as it is clear from data that exorbitantly high fines are counterproductive to road safety.
  2. Sustainable transport: Research clearly highlights that traffic safety can be improved by improving sustainable transportation. The bill empowers states to grant exemptions in stage and contract carriage permits for promoting public transport, rural transport and feeder services.
  3. Guardians or owners will be held for juvenile offences: For offences committed by juveniles, the bill proposes that guardians or owners of the vehicle, will also be held responsible.
  4. Explicit use of technology: The bill proposes to harness technology to improve safety and recommends automated driver training and vehicles testing. It also proposes a unified national database for driving licenses and a national register for vehicle registration.
  5. New Mobility: The bill provides for rules for different permits, thereby recognising the role of disruptive innovators such as taxi aggregators like Uber and Ola. The recommendations of the group of ministers included seeking a liberalised intra-city taxi permit system and issuing legally valid permits for taxis under aggregators.

While some sections seem unhappy that the proposed Road Transport and Safety Bill wasn't the one that was approved, amending the Motor Vehicles Act could very well be the best way to improve road safety legislation in the country.

However, the success of the amended Motor Vehicles Act will primarily depend on the final text of the Bill that is passed by Parliament, followed by its implementation. India has lost far too many lives due to road traffic accidents and it can’t afford to lose any more.

What is needed is a “vision zero” approach towards all road accidents, and an amendment to the Motor Vehicles Act could just be the starting point.

Amit Bhatt is director, integrated transport, WRI India, EMBARQ.