A felony with undefined contours
In view of soaring road rage-related criminal offences, merely increasing compensatory provisions is insufficient; a proper definition and stringent deterrents targeting the root causes are needed
The recent video of a Lucknow girl slapping a cab driver 22 times after the cab passed brushing against the side went viral and became meme material. The woman decided against filing a complaint against the driver but the driver lodged an FIR against her the following day. This is a clear case where the woman wilfully hurt the driver by taking the law into her hand and damaging the dignity of the victim.
While the social media was still busy playing with its memes and condemnations, another news surfaced where a national-level judo player was beaten up by a builder in a road rage incident. The builder was riding a speeding BMW which brushed past the judo player who was accompanied by a female pillion rider. The accused hit the victim with a wooden club during their second encounter after a while. The judo player fears that she might not be able to play again and also her dream to be recruited in the Army stands uncertain because of medical requirements for the post. An FIR has been lodged under sections 325 and 326 of the IPC dealing with punishment for causing grievous hurt. The punishment could be imprisonment for life or imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and also with a liability to pay a fine. The denial to accept that one could be wrong and subsequent building up of rage is evident in this case.
There was another case where the accused drove their Hyundai i20 car a few kilometres with a truck driver clinging to the bonnet following a road rage incident. Isn't this grossly inhuman! One could see here the sense of enjoyment that certain humans find in inflicting pain. Violence is naturally imbibed within each of us but is latent under our civilised form. When moving fast on roads within a 'personal' mechanised space, this violent form is exposed bare — particularly because there is not enough deterrent.
Cases of murder, assault, permanent impairment of body parts, slapping, abusing are plenty in number and keep increasing each day. Depending upon the nature of the crime, penal action is taken under various sections of the IPC.
There is a clear distinction between a murder under general circumstances and a murder in a road rage case. Usually, murders have a certain cause, are meticulously planned and result in some kind of animosity. Road rage murders are abrupt, committed in the heat of the moment, against a person whom the culprit might not have even met in the past! It is time to retrospect whether or not we need a separate law for road rage.
The nature of offense
Rage or anger is a human behaviour that limits one's own control over his mind, body and actions. This behaviour could manifest into injurious or fatal consequences when displayed on the road. Indeed, the rage is not a crime in itself but it could lead to criminal acts.
On roads, we are generally 'weaponized' with our motor vehicles that dehumanizes us as we drive within a confined mechanised motor vehicle. The situation is further compounded with factors like traffic congestion, noise, need to rush etc. Also, when we constantly rush at a fast pace, our stress levels and emotive state (whether we are distressed, furious or excited) are magnified manifold. These things, clubbed together, could lead to a criminal tendency under the influence of which even minor conflicts could take the form of extreme criminal acts. We indeed have IPC sections to deal with these offences.
But where do we have laws to curb that temporary criminal tendency that is vented out after subconsciously weighing in the harms and benefits of the intended act. Once the offence is recorded under various IPC sections it becomes an altogether different affair and the root cause of the issue — road rage — gets subsided in the whole process. The punitive actions must have a direct correlation with the incident of road rage so as to place the required deterrent against the offender in terms of road rage.
In a nutshell, road rage is a criminal tendency with a significant potential for damage. It is cumulative of a whole lot of other factors. The focus has to be on curbing this tendency so that criminal acts are not allowed to shoot up in the first place.
The other closely related factors include aggressive driving, honking, the temptation to race ahead of others, hit and run etc. These factors manifest into road rage and are also responsible for other casualties and losses.
Overall, as per the NCRB data, 59.6 per cent of road accidents during 2019 were due to 'over speeding' which caused 86,241 deaths and 2,71,581 injuries. Careless driving or overtaking contributed to 25.7 per cent of road accidents which rendered 42,557 deaths and 1,06,555 injuries. Besides, only 2.6 per cent of road accidents were due to poor weather conditions. A significant portion of these death and injury numbers may likely be related to road rage in some way or the other.
It is important to decipher the complicated mindset that could lead a person to even take the life of another person whom he might not have met before! Unless we comprehend this psyche, we may not be able to devise effective laws. The issue of road rage is not as simple as it seems. Something as complex as human psychology might be playing its part behind the incidents of road rage. Understanding this psychology becomes very important to formulate the laws of road rage. The solution has to come through proper research but to broadly give some pointers, we have:
Dehumanisation of humans: Does sitting inside a mechanised vehicle dehumanises humans? Humans interact with each other in a variety of settings but they don't generally resort to extreme acts. So, is there some psychological correlation between road rage incidents and the mechanised settings that we are forced into for continuous hours?
A habitual mad rush: Whoever lands on the road — either for going to office, school, market or for some simple errands — is in a hurried rush. This rush can largely be avoided if people get out of their homes with some advanced time gap. If the rush is avoided, a good deal of rage can also be avoided. Stringent laws could deter people from taking unnecessary risks. People will have to be prompted to make a choice — complacency or some heavy cost? It is the human psyche to eliminate the less valuable item from their list. So, the cost of getting involved in a mad rush has to outweigh the complacency factor.
Irritation with impediment: Once on road, different people may be influenced by road rage to varying degrees depending upon their psyche or existing mental condition. Lajunen and Parker (2001) had identified three important anger-provoking factors on the roads: impeded progress; witnessing reckless driving; and being the recipient of hostile gestures.
Other facilitators: Studies have found that aggressive honking, playing music at high volume, overtaking and harsh climatic conditions were positively associated with road rage-related incidents.
Road rage under the law
Every incident of crime can be looked at through two perspectives — what is the extent and nature of damage it has caused, and what has been the individual psyche and social context behind the crime.
As discussed, road rage can potentially trigger a range of criminal acts, extending from a mere act of intimidation to gruesome murders. While the driving force behind the act remains roughly the same, the effect keeps on varying depending upon the individual psyche and other aspects related to the particular incidents, attracting different quantum of punitive action.
It can be inferred that road rage is in effect considered as a causal factor of crime and not a crime in itself. If it were considered a crime then there would not have been different punishments for the same crime. Now since road rage is evolving systematically, causing more threats to human life, safety, dignity and other things, there has to be a more structured response to the problem.
In India, the Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Act, 2019 deals with the safety of individuals on the road. The Act came into being after amending the parent Act of 1988. Surprisingly, despite being a cause for a large number of deaths and disabilities of persons, the Act doesn't make any direct reference to road rage. It deals with related aspects like alcoholic drinking, hit and run and other safety aspects.
It is encouraging that the Act addresses some of the road safety-related offences in a victim-centric manner rather than accused centric. The 2016 Bill increased the compensation allowed to a grievously injured from Rs 12,000 to Rs 50,000 under the Solatium Fund. The compensation in case of death of a person to her heir has also been increased from Rs 25,000 in 1998 Act to Rs two lakh or more, as prescribed by the Central government. The compensation provided under the Solatium Fund is administered by the Central government-owned General Insurance Corporation. The 2016 bill introduced three new funds pertaining to: 1) Cashless treatment for road accident victims; 2) Interim relief for claimants seeking compensation through third party insurance and; 3) Motor Vehicle Accident Fund. Firstly, these are meant for general safety and do not specifically address road rage incidents. Secondly, additional funds, particularly Motor Vehicle Accident Fund, has come under criticism for its ambiguity. Also, the increment in compensation should be seen as an imperative exercise in wake of changed money value.
More importantly, do these measures in any way reduce the possibility of occurrence of road rage related offences? It is less likely. In fact, the increments are a covert acceptance of the fact that such incidents are allowed to occur. After the passing of 30 years of the parent Act, there should have been no need for compensation. The crime ought to have been mitigated or reduced. Relieving the victim is one part of the action, deterring the culprits is the other crucial part.
Even globally, there is not much clarity over the existence of road rage laws. In the United States, road rage is considered as an act through which a person weaponizes their vehicle to retaliate against others. This retaliation may be in the form of tailgating, sudden braking, honking and honking etc. However, there is no uniform law across the country to deal with road rage incidents; It varies from state to state.
Some states — for instance, California – do not have road rage laws. The penal action is taken against the culprit by clubbing together various acts related to road safety. The state laws provide a penalty for an assault with a deadly weapon, hit and run, reckless driving, criminal threats, injuring the other person etc.
In Michigan reckless driving "in wilful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property" is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison if it causes "serious impairment of a body function to another person." and 15 years in prison if it "causes the death of another person."
Road rage is not a crime even in the UK. Instead, there is an offence by the name 'furious and wanton driving' which attracts hefty fines. The Public Order Act, 1986 penalises tailgating, swearing and shouting, showing aggressive hand gestures etc.
Rule 147 of the Highway Code targets reciprocation. It says: "Do not allow yourself to become agitated or involved if someone is behaving badly on the road. This will only make a situation worse."
One of the important takeaways is that these laws seek to limit the possibility of a conflict taking a bigger form. If swearing, shouting and hand gestures are somehow prevented initially then escalation could be avoided.
Of course, if India is to frame a comprehensive law in regards to road rage or incorporate clearly laid out provisions in the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, it must take into account the psyche of its own population. But the laws will have to be targeted at the very root — preventing the initial provocation. Because that's what seems to be at the centre of the entire mess.
Shockingly, a nature of criminal offence where even the motive is mostly undefined is allowed to take thousands of lives each year. Perhaps we are trying to deal with the situation through inappropriate legal tools. Road rage incidents have a character of their own and they need to be dealt with exclusively. Road rage needs to be mentioned and elaborated in legal parlance — only after that, we can expect awareness among the people. The problem is getting bigger each day. It is high time to come up with dedicated legislative actions.
Views expressed are personal