The recent Supreme Court ruling should serve as an occasion for sober reflection on the vexed question of award of compensation to victims of road accidents. To be sure, the pecuniary and non-pecuniary nature and extent of loss sustained by victims and their families are factored into the computation of the quantum of reparations. In this regard, a familiar refrain of courts over many years has been to emphasise the notion of just compensation, as stipulated in the 1987 Motor Vehicles Act. However, the precise interpretation of that provision in practical cases continues to remain elusive. Consider for instance the courts’ oft-repeated observations. Compensation must be reasonable, pragmatic and realistic; that is, it cannot be equated to either a windfall or a bonanza, while simultaneously not amounting to a mere pittance. Or, conversely, that tribunals should be liberal in arriving at the quantum of compensation since life and limb are valued under the law. Such remarks may at best mirror the extreme difficulties involved in determining the amount of damages to be settled.
The task of affixing monetary value to human life is an awkward and intractable one. But this dilemma must be squarely faced by earnestly engaging with the question of what can be done to prevent such loss of life. The means of minimising the number of accidents would obviously be to hold public authorities accountable for grossly inadequate investment in transport infrastructure, traffic regulation and enforcement of safety standards. This is an urgent task considering that roads are the dominant mode of transport in India, carrying about 90 per cent of passenger traffic. Its record as the country doing the worst on road safety paints a bleak picture of official attitudes. If anything, these considerations suggest the current legal approach to compensating accident victims is antiquated. In addition to monetary compensation for death and grievous injury due to negligent and rash driving, non-compliance with global standards on the quality of roads and safety should also be liable for deterrent punishment under the law. An emphasis on prevention would be consistent with the court’s many injunctions on instantaneous and cashless medical intervention for accident victims — most recently in June 2013. To ensure our roads are less accident-prone, we need to promote an overall culture of safety that is now woefully missing. Sadly, neither the still inconclusive judicial process in the 1997 Uphaar Cinema tragedy that took 59 lives, nor the pending high-profile cases of drunken driving resulting in fatalities gives the public much reason to hope.