Crash Course in Road Safety: Decriminalizing Road Traffic Crashes in India

Written by Pratishtha Singh1 and Dr Jagnoor Jagnoor 1,2


Human error cause of road accidents in 95% cases.’ ‘Speeding led to 70% of India road crash deaths.’ ‘Reckless driver causes multiple accidents.’ ‘Wrong side and drunk driving major reasons for accidents in India.

Every year, Road Traffic Crashes (RTCs) claim the lives of about 1.3 million people globally. In India, official statistics reported 168,491 deaths in 2022 alone, likely an underreported figure. Despite this alarming burden, India lacks dedicated national road safety legislation, relying instead on the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988, last amended in 2019. This legislation primarily imposes penalties in the form of punitive fines and incarceration based on the assumption that road safety is almost entirely a function of ‘driver behavior,’ without addressing broader systemic issues.

A safe systems approach offers anethical and effective alternative by designing road systems that are self-explaining and forgiving, whilst recognizing human vulnerabilities. A key principle of this approach is acknowledging that mistakes, errors of judgment and poor decisions are intrinsic to humans and thus, the designing of road infrastructure should take this into account. However, in India, the prevalent belief attributing the majority of crashes to human error is mirrored in the criminalization of RTCs.

The Indian Penal Code (IPC) includes provisions such as IPC 279 for rash or negligent driving, IPC 304 for causing death due to negligence, IPC 336 for endangering life or personal safety of others, and IPC 337 for causing hurt. In all these cases, the underlying belief is that the crash was solely the driver’s fault, without considering road conditions or larger external environments. Imposing criminal charges on individuals for largely unintentional error is not only counterproductive but can foster a culture of fear and reluctance to report incidents. Shifting the focus from punishment to understanding the factors contributing to human error and ensuring accountability among those in positions of authority is imperative for minimizing road crashes and subsequent fatalities.

Decriminalizing RTCs also aligns with public health principles, prioritizing the understanding of root causes. Further, when blame is solely placed on road users, interventions become skewed towards driver-centric solutions like education and training, despite evidence of their limited efficacy in reducing crashes. Countries like Sweden have embraced alternative approaches to RTCs, using civil liability and administrative penalties instead of criminalization. Their Vision Zero initiative emphasizes ‘In every situation a person might fail. Their road systems should not.’ This approach emphasizes a shift from punitive measures, prioritizes prevention through safety and infrastructure, and serves as a successful example of how decriminalization can lead to positive outcomes. Such a holistic approach which addresses infrastructure, human behavior, responsible oversight of the vehicle and transportation industry, and emergency response can help understand the interconnectedness of these elements, leading to a more comprehensive strategy for road safety.

In conclusion, the decriminalization of road traffic crashes represents a paradigm shift towards a more sustainable and preventive approach to road safety. By acknowledging the prevalence of human error, shifting the focus towards prevention and safe systems, promoting rehabilitation over punishment, relieving legal systems of unnecessary burdens, and drawing inspiration from successful global models, Indian societies can pave the way for safer roads and a more just system. Ultimately, decriminalization aligns with the fundamental goal of ensuring public safety and fostering a culture that prioritizes learning and improvement.

Author Institutions

  1. The George Institute for Global Health India
  2. The George Institute for Global Health Australia

The authors declare no competing interests.

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