Unless supplemented by proper infrastructure and implementation, steep fines for traffic violations will not be effective deterrents.
Wikimedia Commons/ CC 1.0/ Bharathiya

This month, the amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act (MVA) were brought into effect. And with them came hefty fines for traffic violations, going into several thousand rupees for driving without a license or drunken driving. The steep penalties soon started a debate - some states such as Rajasthan and West Bengal even refused to implement the fines; some, like Gujarat, revised the fines, slashing them by 90%, and others, like Karnataka, are in the process of revising them. 

But the question remains – do steep fines really deter traffic violations? On the face of it, it appears so. Motorists have been scrambling to get pollution under control (PUC) certificates, insurance and other documents to avoid paying the penalties. 

Although urban experts agree that steep fines will be a deterrent, they caution that just hiking the penalty won’t solve the issue of traffic violations.

Efficient enforcement

As goes with any policy, it is impractical without proper implementation. “If people are fearful of strict enforcement, then smaller fines will also work,” says RK Mishra, a Bengaluru-based urban expert. “But let’s face it, a Rs 100 fine is a smaller deterrent than Rs 1,000.”

However, the assumption behind increasing fines, as well as implementing them should be that people will ultimately abide by the law and fines won’t be collected. “This should not become a way for the government to earn revenue,” he adds.

Risk of increased bribery?

Experts admit that higher fines, without proper implementation, could possibly lead to a higher incidence of bribery.

For instance, with a lower fine of Rs 100, an offender would have little to gain from paying off a traffic police a higher amount, and would rather pay the challan. However, a higher penalty of Rs 2,000 may encourage the offender to pay the traffic policeman off with Rs 1,000, which is a higher sum to pocket as a bribe as well.

The way to eliminate this, say experts, is to only authorise the police to give challans. “The payment of the fine should only happen at a payment centre, or online. Collecting fines should not be up to the police at all,” says Ashwin Mahesh, an urban expert.

Motorists, too, need to be responsible

MN Sreehari, a traffic expert, points out that motorists are well aware when they know they have violated certain traffic rules. “People who are privileged and educated also get caught driving drunk, without helmets or seatbelts,” he argues. “The initiative to follow traffic rules also needs to come from motorists as well. The regard for their and others’ lives needs to come from them.”

To that effect, he says that higher fines coupled with proper implementation may work, as an offender would not want to pay a hefty sum a second time around. So, if not out of the initiative, but out of fear, the person may not violate traffic rules again.

Penalty doesn’t factor in inequality 

While acknowledging that steeper fines are likely to make people wary of breaking traffic rules, Ashwin also points out that a penalty does not affect everyone the same way.

“There are two kinds of road users – those who have high affordability, and those who don’t. Hefty fines are much harder on a person who cannot afford to pay that amount,” he says.

He suggests that perhaps a better idea would have been to link the violation of law to the right to drive. “You can have a system to demerit points. For each traffic violation, you the motorist will get demerit points. If the motorist accumulates a certain number of points, the driving license is revoked,” Ashwin says.

Such a penalty point system was introduced in Hyderabad in 2017. If the motorist accumulated 12 penalty points, his/her license would be suspended for a year. However, it was never implemented correctly, and ‘stopped’ in May 2017.

“The present approach of imposing higher traffic fines is a little weak because it doesn’t take into account the disparity between the rich and the poor. The deterrent has to be applied to something more precious, like the right to drive itself,” Ashwin says.