My career as a transport planner started in 2002 by contributing to a consulting assignment for the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways towards developing a road safety policy for India. One key recommendation in the policy we drafted was to replace or amend the Motor Vehicles Act 1988. Seventeen years on, our vision finally became a reality on September 1, when the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill 2019 came into effect.

What changed in these 17 years? In 2002, India recorded around 75,000 road fatalities. Today, the number has risen to 1.5 lakh. Among them was the high-profile death in 2014 of the former rural development minister Gopinath Munde. We have also seen numerous committees, working groups, sub-committees identifying the need for a strong and relevant motor vehicles policy and making recommendations.

Tragic record

Over 1.3 million people die in road traffic crashes the world over each year. India accounts for more than 11% of those deaths, even though Indians own barely 2% of the world’s motor vehicles. This makes India the world’s worst-performing country in terms of road traffic deaths.

From yet another perspective, considering the 1.5 lakh road traffic deaths on India’s roads every year, the nation sees an average of 411 fatalities a day. That amounts to the loss of one life every four minutes on Indian roads. It also means that by the time you finish reading this article, someone would have lost his or her life in a crash. In addition to being a public health issue, road safety is also an economic concern for India. The country loses $58 billion, or 3% of its GDP, every year due to road traffic crashes.

Today, as the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill awaits the final notification by road ministry to officially become a law, there is a ray of hope. Global case studies show that countries that have done well on road safety have a good central legislation around it.

The first law relating to motor vehicles in India was the Indian Motor Vehicles Act, 1914. It was replaced by the Motor Vehicles Act, 1939. Changes recommended by a working group were incorporated into the Motor Vehicles Act 1988. However, most provisions of the 1988 bill revolved around movement of goods and passengers. Concerns about safety were mostly missing because in the pre-liberalisation period, it was felt that policies were needed to give the transport sector a boost.

The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill 2019 remedies that gap. More importantly, it acknowledges that road safety revolves around three categories: users, vehicles and infrastructure. It has provision for all of these categories.

Road users: The Bill will create a Motor Vehicle Accident Fund to provide compulsory insurance to all road users in India. The fund will pay for treatment of crash survivors, provide compensation for the victims’ families and establish other systems to support all kinds of road users, from pedestrians to two-wheeler riders, pillion riders, private motor vehicle users and large vehicle users.
The bill will also protect “Good Samaritans” – fellow passengers or passers-by who stops to help a crash victim by providing emergency medical or non-medical support – from long and tedious interrogation processes. It safeguards them from any civil or criminal action that may arise due to any perceived negligence in assisting the victim.

For hit-and-run incidents, traffic violations or other offences committed by juveniles, the Bill states that the guardian (of the minor) or owner (of the vehicle) would be deemed guilty. A key – and the most talked-about provision of the Bill – is enhanced penalties, which is expected to act as a deterrent to the offender and so reduce crashes. Many traffic offenses have low penal provisions today. For example, in Delhi, the fine for over-speeding is only Rs 500, while drunken drivers get away by paying Rs 2,000.

Vehicles manufacturers: The Bill empowers the government to ask vehicle manufacturers to recall motor vehicles that could potentially damage the health and safety of road users. It also empowers the Centre to levy penalties of up to Rs 100 crores on vehicle manufacturers if they fail to meet motor vehicles standards.

The Bill provides mechanisms for recognising taxi aggregators (on-call taxis like Uber, Ola) and empowers states to issues licences to them, and bring them under the Information Technology Act, 2000. Therefore, the provision will lead to safer vehicles plying on the road.

Infrastructure planners: The Bill will create a road safety board with representation from state governments. The board will advise Central and state governments on road safety and traffic management.

The bill also empowers the Centre to draft a national transport policy, which would help develop a framework for planning, granting permits and priorities for the road transport sector, thereby clearly linking infrastructure design to safety. If the agencies, contractor or even consultant fails to provide, design or maintain safe roads, the government can penalise them with fines of up to Rs 100,000.

A new category of permits will also help scale up public transport services in cities as well as rural areas. These important provisions will lead to safe infrastructure in India.

Road traffic crashes is now globally recognised as an epidemic and India cannot afford a business-as-usual attitude towards road safety. We need to develop a vision towards zero deaths and injuries by putting people first so that our roads are no longer the most dangerous in the world. The new Bill is expected to do just that by triggering a systemic change towards road safety.

The writer is the director of Integrated Urban Transport at WRI India.