The number of road deaths in the country has swelled over the years. While 15 people died every hour in 2010 due to road accidents, last year the figure was 17. India is ahead of all other countries in road deaths. It also has a clear lead in the longest response time in securing first aid and medical treatment.
Most deaths are caused by human error. A foreign expert on robotics has claimed that driverless cars could save one million lives across the world in a year. But till that happens, we have to work the existing rules under the Motor Vehicles Act, which has largely remained untouched for decades despite the motor vehicles boom.
How impervious the authorities are to the mayhem created by inadequate laws can be seen from the fact that the comprehensive suggestions made by the Supreme Court years ago have gathered dust in police and government departments.
The latest instance of the authorities’ apathy can be seen from the non-implementation of the orders regarding security name plates. It was meant to ensure public safety and security. For seven years, the court was trying to goad states into enforcing the rule, but even now the implementation of the judgment in M S Bitta vs Union of India is tardy. The hurdles started with the corporate war over who would get the contract for new number plates. After that issue was settled, the court had to nudge the authorities at every point to go ahead with the plan.
At many stages in the past, the court was desperate. It has summoned top officials, imposed a fine and threatened contempt of court action, but to no avail. One typical passage from several orders shows the judges’ anguish: “Most of the states have failed to implement the scheme and the directions contained in the judgments of this court,” a recent order said. “The matter remained pending before this court for a considerable time and various orders directing implementation of the scheme were not complied with.”
The court passed a detailed judgment three years ago in the case, Jai Prakash vs Union of India. It discussed several problems related to the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, and the central rules passed under it. Directions were passed in cases of hit and run by unidentified vehicles, the problem of uninsured vehicles, gratuitous passengers and passengers in goods vehicles. The judgment also dealt with procedural delays in the adjudication or settlement of claims.
The court pointed out that the compensation amount awarded by motor accident claims tribunals often does not reach claimants. This was called the second trauma for dependents, after the fatal accident. The court passed directions to police authorities and made suggestions to law makers. Tribunals were asked to implement the beneficial provisions contained in Sections 158(6), 166(4) and 196. These rules lay down a timeline for proceeding with an accident case right from the first information to the award.
Insurance companies, with their team of cynical surveyors and nit-picking lawyers, are a formidable hindrance to reach fair compensation . The court found that the present scheme of third-party insurance was inadequate. “To ensure that all accident victims get compensation, it is necessary to formulate a more comprehensive scheme for payment of compensation to victims of road accidents, in place of the present system of third party insurance,” the judgment said.
For example, in South Africa and some African countries, road accident funds are created and managed by Road Accident Fund Commissions. This eliminates the need for third-party insurance. A fuel surcharge is collected on the sale of petrol and diesel and credited to such funds. All accident victims are paid compensation from this fund by the commission.
However, what the Motor Vehicles Act provides is long and complex procedures, vitiated by corruption at every stage, and ultimately a schedule of payments that has been ridiculed by the court in several judgments since the 1996 case, U.P. State Road Transport Corporation vs Trilok Chandra.
The court also pointed out that unlike some countries, there was no comprehensive law regarding vehicles, insurance and compensation. Thus, it referred to some vital areas in which intervention by the legislature and/or executive was urgently required. Of course, the court could only order its registry to send copies of the judgment to “(i) Chief Secretaries and Director Generals of Police of all States, and (ii) Registrar-Generals of all High Courts, for compliance with the directions. The suggestions made may be placed before the Central Government by the learned Solicitor”. Unfortunately, this was the last we heard on these suggestions.