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Road will be safer now

Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Bill provisions are welcome.

Road will be safer now
On April 10, the Lok Sabha passed a landmark piece of legislation called the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill 2016, which is aimed at securing a modicum of order in the country's chaotic road traffic and encouraging some relief from egregiously reckless drivers. The well-intentioned amendments moved by a few responsible Opposition members were rejected as they lamentably lacked the legitimacy of numbers. Still, the Bill, with the due sanctity of law after assent from the Upper House and the subsequent Presidential imprimatur, is poised to improve the road traffic situation.

In the course of passing of the Bill, the BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi let the cat out of the bag when she conceded candidly that "this Bill had to be brought because India is signatory of the Brasilia Declaration with the pledge that it will make all-out endeavor to halve the number of road accident deaths and fatalities by the year 2022". Even as this suggests that we act only under duress sans our enlightened volition, the fact needs to be lauded that at long last a significant thrust to usher radical reforms on the road transport sector is given by the authorities for the weal of all. This is particularly noteworthy because as the Minister of Road Transport and Highways and Shipping, Nitin Gadkari said while moving the Bill for its passage that more than five lakh road accidents happen in our country every year and about one and a half lakh people lose their lives in these major mishaps.

The quintessence of the Bill include, among others, amending the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 to address issues such as third party insurance, regulation of taxi aggregators such as those being operated by Ola and Uber and road safety and the extant categories of driver licensing, recall of vehicles in case of manufacturing defects, protection of good Samaritans from civil or criminal action and enhancement of penalties for several offences under the well-nigh three decades old 1988 Act. The last is significant in that novel practices such as road rage claiming lives because of the altercations in the jittery junctures of the intersections of roads was seldom known in a painfully pronounced manner as they are now.

It would be germane to set out and amplify the provisions of significant amendments in the Bill. Third party insurance is the liability purchased from an insurer (insurance company) by a person (insured party or vehicle owner) to protect one against claims from affected persons (the victim or third party) in the event of death, injury or damage to property. Under the 1988 Act, third party insurance is mandatory for all motor vehicles and the liability of the third party insurer is unlimited which is understandable as the party is the victim of the accident. This means that the insurer has to cover the entire amount of the liability incurred (compensation) as resolved by the tribunals/courts if the victim or his/her heir drags the issue to get settled in the courts. Incidentally, compensation amounts are calculated by the courts on the basis of several parameters such as age, earning capability of the victim or in the case of a young woman with kids who leave behind the uphill task upbringing the children to the care of her husband or in-laws which may take a bad, good, or ugly turn for the children in their later life.

By capping the maximum liability for third party insurance in case of a motor accident at Rs 10 lakh in the event of death and at Rs 5 lakh in case of grievous injury, the Bill offers instant relief to the victims' family. Most of the victims from poor households, for instance, do not get any compensation because the owner of the vehicle, if conscience-smitten, throws up a pittance for the murderous act to shirk the heavy responsibility by skirting court proceedings. In a few cases, the local police also abet such blatant misuse of provisions of compensation by coercing the victim's heirs to take up the meagre amount. Now this odious practice would come to an end as the victim's heirs must get instant compensation of ten lakhs of rupees which would at least address some of the existential concerns of the bereaved family if it loses its sole bread-winner.

Once the maximum instant compensation is ascertained, the insurance companies would also breathe easy as they would not have to contend with the unlimited and unquantifiable amount by way of compensation which might rob them of their hard-earned premium pots. In his reply, the Minister confirmed that on third party insurance the upper limit of the compensation amount claims made to the tribunal by the victims' heir had not been fixed, and the entire amount will have to be paid by the insurance companies. He said the victim's heir might accept the amount set in the amendment bill as otherwise, they would be free to approach the claims tribunal.

The incontrovertible induction one draws is that where the victim's heirs do not have the time, energy and cost to take the issue to the tribunals/courts, they would be satisfied with the compensation set out in the law. Whether the compensation of Rs 10 lakh is the ultimate price for a human being's life is a philosophical issue, the fact remains that instant and urgent relief and succour is given to the family of the victim without making them run from pillar to post in quest of sustenance help for those left behind. Though the Standing Committee scrutinising the 2016 bill favoured deleting the provisions pertaining to capping liability, the Government has done a yeoman's service in helping out hapless families who are the victims of road rage and contretemps to enable them to face the future with a ray of hope through the monetary assistance.

Other changes proposed in the Bill cover, inter alia, include mandatory disclosure of Aadhaar number to apply for driving licence, process of getting driver's license going online, making contractor responsible for bad roads liable to be penalised, proposal of stricter penalties for high-risk offences such as drunken driving, perilous driving, and non-adherence to safety norms by drivers such as not putting on seat belts and helmets. The bill also provides for an accident victim fund which would be used in case of hit-and-run incidents and for providing treatment to the injured during the precious golden hour. With the proposal of the new fund, the extant Solatium Fund would be merged into this new fund. The bill also seeks to pave the way for far-reaching changes in rural-urban transportation and last mile connectivity.

With the country's passenger vehicle sales having crossed three million marks in 2016-17, the amendment Bill has not come a day too soon. Though the law has flaws as it's hard to satisfy every segment, it will go a long way in bringing transparency to the existing system of road transport administration, which itself is a redemptive exercise in salvaging it from rack and ruin.

(Views are strictly personal.)
G Srinivasan

G Srinivasan

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