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Above: Recently, a bus fell into a canal off the Yamuna Expressway, killing at least 29 people/Photo: UNI

Despite the growing number of road accidents, the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill has not been passed in Parliament. Will the monsoon session bring about a change and succour for lakhs of victims?

By Ramesh Menon

Every day, some 405 people die in India in 1,274 road accidents. In 2017, as many as 4,64,910 road accidents were reported, which killed 1,47,913 people and injured 4,70,975. Over-speeding accounted for 70.4 percent of the accidents and most of the victims were in the productive ages of 14-45 years.

Even though Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari proposes to introduce the lapsed Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill in the ongoing session of Parliament, he must look at curbing some vexed issues of road safety. Gadkari attempted to get the Bill passed in the last Lok Sabha, but could not pull it through. The Bill was a direct result of the sudden death of Union Minister Gopinath Munde in a road accident in June 2014. After Gadkari introduced the Bill on August 9, 2016, it was referred to the Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism, and Culture on August 16, 2016.

The rise in the number of road accidents has kept pace with the exponential rise in the number of vehicles. Piyush Tewari, founder of Safe Life Foundation, told India Legal: “The Bill has many progressive firsts and if implemented properly can transform the road safety scenario in India. With robust road safety provisions, the Bill rectifies the archaic Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. It introduces liability on road contractors and engineers for faulty construction and poor maintenance of roads that lead to deaths. Liability on authorities and engineers will go a long way in ensuring better roads and reducing deaths which can be prevented.

“With 17 people losing their lives every hour and the country losing three percent of its GDP annually due to road accidents, the Bill needs urgent enactment to address this epidemic.”

In 2007, the ministry of road transport and highways appointed a committee on road safety to examine the magnitude of road traffic injuries and fatalities. It recommended setting up road safety authorities at state and national levels. In April 2016, the centre constituted a group of state transport ministers to recommend reforms for the road transport sector. The group recommended that the earlier Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, be amended to address urgent issues of road safety.

Some of the highlights of the Bill are:

  • Liability of the third party insurer for motor vehicle accidents is unlimited. The maximum liability for third party insurance in case of a motor accident is Rs 10 lakh in case of death and Rs 5 lakh in case of grievous injury. This implies that the insurance company is liable to pay only up to these specified amounts. However, the Bill does not cap the compensation amount decided by courts. The question is who will pay the remaining amount if courts award compensation amounts higher than the maximum liability prescribed under the Bill? This is not clear in the Bill.
  • Under the 1988 Act, a driving licence was valid for 20 years or till the person attains the age of 50 years, whichever is earlier. After the age of 50, the licence is valid for only five years. The Bill amends this to create several categories. If a person applying for the licence is below 30, it will be valid till he turns 40. Between 30 and 50 years, the licence will be valid for 10 years. Between 50 and 55 years, it will be valid till the holder turns 60. If the driver is above 55, the licence will be valid only for five years.
  • The Bill allows the central government to recall vehicles if they have a defect that may cause damage to the environment or other road users. The manufacturer will reimburse buyers with the cost of the vehicle or replace it with another vehicle with similar or better specifications.
  • Samaritans will be protected for rendering emergency assistance to an accident victim and will not be held responsible for his death.
  • Grant of licences, registration, receipts and change of address will be computerised. There will also be electronic monitoring and enforcement of road safety.
  • The maximum penalty for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs has been increased from Rs 2,000 to Rs 10,000.
  • If a vehicle manufacturer fails to comply with maintenance standards of motor vehicles, it could attract a fine up to Rs 100 crore or one-year imprisonmentor both.
  • Compensation and insurance provisions for accidents have been modified.
  • The central government will constitute a Motor Vehicle Accident Fund which would provide compulsory insurance cover to all road users for being grievously hurt or for payment of compensation in case of death or grievous injury where no person can be held liable for the accident. Currently, the 1988 Act provides for a Solatium Fund to provide compensation to hit and run victims. The new Fund also provides for compensation for hit and run accidents, in addition to other accident cases.
  • The central government will design a scheme for providing interim relief to claimants seeking compensation under third party insurance for motor vehicle accidents. It can also recover funds from the owner of the motor vehicle involved in the accident.
  • State governments will have to ensure electronic monitoring and enforcement of road safety on national highways, state highways and urban roads. States will, therefore, have to heavily invest in installation of CCTV cameras, speed detectors and training programmes for detection squads. The Bill does not specify whether the costs will be borne through a central scheme or additional grants. However, the Standing Committee examining the 2016 Bill recommended that the central government should help states with the technical expertise and logistics to make roads safer.

At the moment, all taxi permits are issued by state transport authorities. The 1988 Act allows the state transport authorities to attach additional conditions to these permits such as the rate of fare, the maximum number of passengers, the requirement of meters in taxis and so on. The states have framed guidelines for taxi operations on various aspects of services including operational infrastructure, vehicle profile, driver’s profile, grant of licences and taxi fare.

There could be cases where state guidelines are different from central guidelines. And if that is so, the central guidelines will prevail as motor vehicle laws fall under the Concurrent List in the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution. However, the Standing Committee examining the 2016 Bill recommended that it should be optional for states to follow central government guidelines on aggregators. Both the state and the centre have to be in sync on road safety and regulations. The World Bank rightly said: “Road safety goes beyond the transport sector, with a direct impact on public health, societies and economies. Likewise, because road safety is an inherently cross-sectorial issue, real progress can only happen if all relevant stakeholders unite their efforts.”

Another issue is that even though an insurance customer doesn’t claim damages and gets the no-claim bonus, the insurance amount dished out by him as renewal is almost the same as the previous year or even more. This is because insurance companies have been reporting losses in the third party insurance business and have increased premiums under one pretext or the other.

One recommendation of the National Transportation Development Policy Committee was that those making badly designed roads should be held responsible for accidents and not drivers. Roads should be designed in such a way that the driver behaviour would weigh towards opting for safer alternatives. It pointed out that countries like Sweden and Australia recognised that humans would make errors, and therefore, focused on designing road transport systems that minimised human errors. India can learn from that. Countries like the US, Australia and Sweden hold government agencies responsible for traffic safety and management. However, in India, various bodies are responsible and so there is no effective coordination between them and this results in complete confusion.

The Sundar Committee on Road Safety pointed out that the bodies concerned did not have the capacity to do their jobs. Surprisingly, the National Road Safety Council also does not have adequate statutory backing, resources or the mandate to deal with road safety.  The Committee recommended setting up of Road Safety and Traffic Management Boards at the national and state levels which would set standards, conduct audits of roads, lay down vehicle safety features, conduct road safety re­search and recommend guidelines on driver licensing and vehicle registration.

As road safety is of paramount importance, it is hoped this Bill will be passed this time.

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