The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill passed by the Lok Sabha this week will take a little more time to come into force, since it has not cleared the Rajya Sabha in the Budget session. But the changes that it proposes to the Motor Vehicles (MV) Act of 1988 are significant. The Centre assumes a direct role in the reforms, since it will introduce guidelines that bind State governments in several areas, notably in creating a framework for taxicab aggregators, financing insurance to treat the injured and to compensate families of the dead in hit-and-run cases, prescribing standards for electronically monitoring highways and urban roads for enforcement and modernising driver licensing. There is a dire need to have clear rules and transparent processes in all these areas, since transport bureaucracies have remained unresponsive to the needs of a growing economy that is witnessing a steady rise in motorisation. The bottleneck created by their lack of capacity has stifled regulatory reform in the transport sector and only encouraged corruption. There is some concern that the move to amend the MV Act overly emphasises the concurrent jurisdiction of the Centre at the cost of State powers, but the proposed changes come after a long consultation exercise. A group of State Transport Ministers went into the reform question last year, while the comprehensive recommendations of the Sundar Committee on road safety have been left on the back burner for nearly a decade.
It may appear counter-intuitive, but research shows that imposing stricter penalties tends to reduce the level of enforcement of road rules. As the IIT Delhi’s Road Safety in India report of 2015 points out, the deterrent effect of law depends on the severity and swiftness of penalties, but also the perception that the possibility of being caught for violations is high. The amendments to the MV Act set enhanced penalties for several offences, notably drunken driving, speeding, jumping red lights and so on, but periodic and ineffective enforcement, which is the norm, makes it less likely that these will be uniformly applied. Without an accountable and professional police force, the ghastly record of traffic fatalities, which stood at 1,46,133 in 2015, is unlikely to change. On another front, State governments must prepare for an early roll-out of administrative reforms prescribed in the amended law, such as issuing learner’s licences online, recording address changes through an online application, and electronic service delivery with set deadlines. Indeed, to eliminate corruption, all applications should be accepted by transport departments online, rather than merely computerising them. Protection from harassment for good samaritans who help accident victims is something the amended law provides, and this needs to be in place.