In the few minutes that it takes you to read this article, there will likely have been a road accident somewhere in this country. Every hour, about 17 lives are lost somewhere in this country due to road accidents. About 150,000 people died in road accidents in 2016.
It was in 2016, that the government initiated major reforms to the Motor Vehicles Act, the main law that governs road safety standards in the country and covers everything from licencing to norms for third party insurance, to cab regulation. The changes, based on recommendations of a committee of state transport ministers have already been passed by the Lok Sabha.
A Rajya Sabha select committee recommended that the Bill, as passed by the Lower House, be passed by the Upper House without any amendment. This was in December last year. Almost a year later, the Bill has not moved.
Speaking with reporters in August, Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari hit out at what he called the “corrupt RTO Association lobby” for stalling the Bill. A major reform in the Bill is a provision allowing new vehicles to be registered by dealers themselves rather than at the relevant regional transport office (RTO). If implemented, it could have the potential to hugely reduce corruption at the level of the RTO.
But even beyond its potential for tackling corruption, the Bill contains major improvements over existing law in relation to road safety, both in relation to vehicles themselves, and the roads they run on. This is all the more important in light of the fact that in India, about 77 per cent of the accidents are reported to have been caused due to the driver’s fault, when in fact, as the National Transportation Development Policy Committee pointed out in 2014, badly designed roads could be as much at fault in many cases. India is a signatory to the Brasilia Declaration on Road Safety which commits signatories to cut road accident fatalities by 50 per cent by the year 2020. This is unlikely to happen unless major reforms are introduced.
INDIA’S ROAD NIGHTMARE
- 17 lives are lost every hour in India due to road accidents
- 150,000 people died in road accidents in 2016
- 77% of the accidents have been caused due to the driver’s fault
The Motor Vehicles Act was first introduced in 1988. As the Select Committee of Parliament points out : “The liberalisation of Indian economy brought in a revolution in the Indian automobile sector. The number of vehicles increased, all the world leaders in automobile industry opened their showrooms in India, the roads have increased, the technology has changed and the number of accidents have also increased.” Yet, as the committee points out, “the attempts to change the Motor Vehicles Act were not successful”. Laws and safety regulations have not kept pace with the rapid pace of change in the sector.
THE MOTOR VEHICLES BILL...
- sets up a National Road Safety Board that will advise the government on road design and motor vehicle safety
- adds new provisions that allow the Centre to recall vehicles that pose a danger to users
- widens the range of driving licences that can be issued
- aims to protect ‘good samaritans’, who help accident victims
The first set of reforms that the Bill introduces, concerns the mobility infrastructure itself — the roads. The new Bill sets up a National Road Safety Board along the lines of the ones that exist elsewhere in the world. A common set of standards on road design and motor vehicle safety are sorely needed and that is what the new board will advise the government on. Any contractor or consultant responsible for the design, construction or maintenance of roads must follow any new norms which the centre mandates. As a report by PRS Legislative Research on the new Bill points out, other countries, such as Sweden and Australia, recognise that humans will make errors, and therefore focus on designing road transport systems that minimise the opportunity for human error.
The second set of reforms is about the vehicles. Though standards have improved in recent years, remarkably few Indian car models, including popular and expensive high-end SUV models, actually pass globally recognised safety tests. This is despite India being one of the world’s largest automobile markets. The Bill introduces new provisions that allow the central government to order a recall of vehicles which pose a danger to users. The Bill also requires manufacturers to compensate the customer in full or replace the defective vehicle with a similar or better model.
The third set of reforms is about people. The Bill widens the range of driving licences that can be issued, and even aims to protect ‘good samaritans’, who provide assistance to accident victims, from claims for compensation or even criminal prosecution.
The Bill also addresses the technological changes in the sector. The rise of cab aggregators like Uber and Ola have posed a new challenge for the existing legal framework. The Bill sets up a structure to recognise and licence such aggregators, while giving individual states the freedom to decide the specifics of such regulation.
One of the major issues around the Bill had been the relative powers of states versus the central government, since many of the regulations around road transport are within the domain of individual states. The Bill as passed by the Lower House had gone to a considerable extent to address those concerns.
Given that Parliament will be dissolved in a few months ahead of elections next year, it is all the more imperative that such a critical reform see the light of day before that.
The author is Chairman of Feedback Infra.