When the Union Government amended the law governing traffic rules earlier this year, the most visible change was the steep increase in penalties for violations. The new fines have been in place since September 1 – but they have immediately run into controversy.

Several states have chosen to dilute the penalties, even as the Centre insists that doing so is to be reckless with people’s lives. But do steep fines for traffic violations actually work?

With the new rules, a person driving without a licence has to pay a fine of Rs 5,000, compared to Rs 500 earlier. Driving without insurance attracts a fine of Rs 2,000 while drunk driving attracts a penalty of Rs 10,000. Two-wheeler riders without wearing a helmet while riding a two-wheeler will pay a fine of Rs 1,000.

In some cases, traffic policemen can also suspend driving licences of drivers who repeatedly violate safety norms.

Since the amended Motor Vehicles Act has come into effect, there have been reports of drivers around the country complaining about the severity of the fines. One truck driver from Rajasthan had to pay Rs 1.4 lakh, while another in Odisha was charged Rs 86,500. In Gurugram, a resident of Delhi was fined Rs 23,000 for riding his two-wheeler without a helmet and not carrying the vehicle’s insurance papers, registration and pollution certificates.

However, as the number of violations being booked went up, some states, including Gujarat, started to slash penalties. This prompted Nitin Gadkari, the Union Minister of Road, Transport and Highways, to defend the amendments to the Act.

“Are you not worried about deaths of 150,000 people?” Gadkari said on September 11, urging states to not weaken the Act. “My appeal is that these fines are not for revenue but to save lives.”

Good move or too steep?

One week after the new fines were introduced on September 1, the number of violations registered in Delhi fell by 70% compared to the average daily number the previous month, The Times of India reported.

This drop was welcomed by many Delhi residents, who are keenly aware of the dangers posed by drivers who violate the rules. Yet, many of them wondered if the fines are too steep.

A resident of Shalimar Bagh in North Delhi, Raju Kumar, 34, remembers the day he met with a road accident in July and fractured his left arm. “I was in the hospital for nearly a month,” said Kumar, who works as a driver. “People driving cars at night drive very rashly.”

After the accident, Kumar said he became more diligent about following the traffic rules. “I never take a chance now,” he said.

The increased fines are a step in the right direction, Kumar said. “It will create fear so people will follow the rules now,” he agreed. “But how will a poor person pay such heavy fines?”

A police officer uses a device to fine a driver for breaking traffic rules in Mumbai. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Mohammad Rashid, 45, who works as a mechanic and lives in Sadar Bazaar in North Delhi, observed that there had been long lines at petrol pumps as drivers were getting their pollution registration checked since amended law kicked in. “There should be traffic policemen everywhere,” suggested Rashid.

He added: “Some young boys ride their motorcycles carelessly in small and narrow lanes. I feel very scared for my children when they play in these lanes. Traffic policemen should catch these people as well.”

Rashid echoed Kumar’s concerns about the fines being too high. “The rules are great but what if someone makes a mistake?” he asked. “There are people who only earn between Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 a month, including me. How will we pay such heavy fines?”

More fear now’

Despite the residents’ questions, traffic policemen and parking attendants said they observed a change in the behaviour of drivers.

Gaisul Azam has been working as an attendant at a parking lot in Central Delhi’s Rajiv Chowk for two years. After September 1, Azam, 41, said that he has seen more two-wheeler riders wearing helmets. “The young boys on bikes just run away when they see traffic policemen now,” said Azam, who works at the parking lot on a 12-hour daily shift. “There is more fear now.”

Traffic policemen told Scroll.in said that there was a decline in the number of violations they were registering. “Earlier, we would issue 30 to 40 forms everyday,” said a traffic policeman, at Janpath in Central Delhi, requesting anonymity. “Now we issue just around five or six forms. At the traffic signal we see people keeping their documents ready for us if we want to verify them.”

The traffic policeman said there was a common misconception among drivers about how to pay the increased penalties. “Everyone thinks that they have to shell out money the minute they get caught,” said the traffic policeman. He said the fines were not collected in cash or by card. Instead, there is a “virtual court on which the form to pay is issued to the driver”, he said.

The official added: “These new rules are not about revenue collection. We just want people to be more aware.”

Implementation in states

Since roads come under the concurrent list of subjects in the Indian Constitution, which gives both Central and state governments jurisdiction over it, states are allowed to tweak the rules while implementing the amended Motor Vehicles Act.

After September 1, many states have implemented the law differently.

Biju Janata Dal-ruled Odisha was one of the first states to make changes to the Act. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announced on September 9 that drivers would be given three months to get their documents in order. This announcement came two days after police personnel in Bhubaneshwar clashed with angry residents, who were issued high fines on September 7, the Hindustan Times reported.

A press release from the chief minister’s office stated that Patnaik “expressed deep concern over the public resentment which has been reported from some parts of the state, particularly Bhubaneswar, on account of enforcement of the provisions of the recently amended MV [Motor Vehicles] Act”.

A Delhi Traffic Police constable holds up a placard with safe driving tips during a safety awareness campaign in February. Credit: Prakash Singh/ AFP

Other states also followed suit, making their own changes in how the Act would be implemented.

On September 10, Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani announced that his state was slashing penalties for traffic violations. For instance, the fine for not wearing a helmet was reduced to Rs 500 from Rs 1,000.

The next day, Uttarakhand followed suit. This prompted Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa to instruct transport officials in his state to study how Gujarat had slashed its fines.

The government in Goa, meanwhile, said that it would first repair roads in the state as “moral responsibility” before implementing the new Act. It said that the Act would come into effect from January.

States such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Maharashtra have not yet implemented the new rules under the amended Act.

Global example

In general, across the world, countries have seen success in reducing violations by increasing traffic fines.

In Sri Lanka, for instance, the number of violations fell after fines were increased in 2005, according to a study published by the British Medical Journal in 2012. Among other consequences, driving without a licence decreased by 59.5% after the higher fines kicked in, the study noted.

But in most cases, it is a combination of fines and strong implementation in combination with other changes that did the job. The South Korean government in 2001 made a number of policy interventions that included raising traffic fines and a national campaign to increase the use of seat belts. Along with the campaign, the penalties for not wearing seat belts were doubled. Eight months later, seat belt use rose from 23% to 98%, according to a study.

What experts say

While experts welcomed the amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act, some said that the fines were too steep. Road safety experts commended the Centre for the amended Act but also urged it to increase fines gradually.

“High fines will affect different regions in different ways,” said Shamindra Nath Roy, of the Centre for Policy Research. “This relates to how big cities are. In Delhi and Mumbai for instance, people may be able to pay such fines.”

Roy recommended that fines should be linked with the per capita income of the region in order to determine capacity to pay. “I cannot imagine someone in Bhubaneshwar paying a fine of Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000 for violating traffic rules,” he said.

Amit Bhatt of the World Resources Institute said that in addition to imposing higher penalties, the Act contained a host of other measures to encourage drivers to follow traffic rules. “The possibility of being caught needs to increase,” Bhatt said. “For this, we need to use IT for enforcement of the law.”

Both experts agreed that steep fines alone would not act as deterrent unless accompanied by other measures.

“There is no direct correlation between high fines and road safety,” said Roy. “We do not know if higher fines will lead to better behaviour of drivers on roads.”