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Every time the traffic police in Chennai and other cities of Tamil Nadu launch a “road safety drive”, there are spectacular displays and a week of media charades, but nothing really changes on the tarmac. Badly behaved motorists don’t feel persuaded to drive by the book. A case in point is the Greater Chennai Traffic Police’s pledge against honking which has done nothing to reduce people’s use of horns and indeed the city’s honking culture seems to have gotten worse.

On Thursday, once again the Tamil Nadu government took another step to try and instill fear among violent and recalcitrant motorists. Fines for various traffic offences were raised, in line with what NGOs including the Citizen, Civic and Consumer Action Group (CAG) has been advocating for long. The amended Motor Vehicles Act of 2019 provides for higher penalties, along with a provision for action against official agencies that fail to maintain roads and create safe conditions.

Informal, highly tolerant
The problem is that road rule enforcement in India bears no resemblance to the concept of zero tolerance, and political populism sharply reduces the scope of the law’s application, even when fines were lower in the past and eminently enforceable. Social expectations make the law even more malleable, since most Tamil Nadu road users are comfortable only with “informal” arrangements, where the letter of the law quickly dissolves into jelly in the face of considerations such as the social status (both high and low), political influence, crony links to authority and even the nature of employment of the offender.

Fines for various traffic offences were raised, in line with what NGOs including the Citizen, Civic and Consumer Action Group (CAG) has been advocating for long

Evidence of this is everywhere, with two-wheelers affixing stickers declaring that the owner is from “TNEB” “High Court” “Corporation” or “Secretariat,” and cars sport “Media” stickers, all meant to alert the traffic policeman to the affiliation of the driver, and not to press any penalties. Recently, one viral video clip showed a two-wheeler taxi with a “Police” sticker, which was stopped and the rider interrogated by autorickshaw drivers.

The new fine system, which the Chennai City Police Commissioner Shankar Jiwal unveiled, prescribes enhanced penalties effective from October 28 for some common violations. These include:

Blowing the horn unnecessarily   Rs. 1,000 (first time), Rs. 2,000 (subsequent time)

Not giving way to ambulance       Rs. 10,000

Riding without helmet              Rs. 500 (1st), Rs. 1,500 (subsequent)

Stop line violation                    Rs. 500 (1st), Rs. 1,500 (subsequent)  

Racing on roads                       Rs. 5,000

Disobeying orders of authority    Rs. 2,000 

Also Read: How flyovers create more problems than they solve

What works
The technical literature on effective road rule enforcement derives from Classic Deterrence Theory first articulated by Bentham and Beccaria, which postulates that penalties are effective based on the certainty, severity and swiftness of the enforcement action.

Given the long history of informality that has guided road rule enforcement in Tamil Nadu, the role of VIP culture, the impunity of those who work in the “right” government departments, and commercial vehicles such as tipper lorries remaining beyond the pale of the police, the new fines may trouble only a few of the violators who lack the clout but persist with wayward behaviour. Invariably, these are two-wheeler riders. Conversely, autorickshaw and bus drivers are almost never the target of enforcement action, unless there has been a serious accident.

The key to restraining rogue behaviour on the roads is the three-pronged approach where certainty of action is arguably the key. Since CCTV presence (not just cameras installed by the Police) is ubiquitous, there is little doubt that evidence of rule violation can be produced without difficulty. A diligent police team can simply record violations on mobile phone cameras. What cannot be lacking is an official decision to go “Zero Tolerance” after the honeymoon period of warnings.

Assuming that the Greater Chennai Traffic Police is serious about its latest move, the following protocol could be tried:

  • Widely advertise the new fines via TV, Internet, Social Media, SMS campaigns and at major road intersections with the start date
  • Tell the public that Zero Tolerance will be new order; business as usual will not apply
  • For example, advertise that wrong side driving will attract a specific high fine
  • Post police at unexpected locations to record violations, including needless honking, and send warning notices to vehicle owners for a full fortnight
  • Integrate the warnings in the Transport Database, so that it serves as a record
  • Encourage pedestrians, cyclists, other motorists to provide video evidence of violations to Police
  • Foster confidence in the policing system by pulling up MTC bus drivers, autorickshaws, ‘G’ marked government cars visibly
  • Issue warning to all autorickshaws which have removed their original silencers to produce higher noise on the road, on violation of Sec. 194F (b) of the MV Act
  • Encourage installation of dashboard cameras to provide video proof on offenders, just as Police are persuading houses to have CCTVs facing the street. Create capacity among aftermarket car accessories agencies to install dash cameras

The key to restraining rogue behaviour on the roads is the three-pronged approach where certainty of action is arguably the key. Since CCTV presence (not just cameras installed by the Police) is ubiquitous, there is little doubt that evidence of rule violation can be produced without difficulty.

Make govt. agencies accountable under MV Act:

  • In line with Section 198A (1), encourage reports from the public about unsafe road conditions at given locations, and serve notice on designated authority (government agency), contractor, consultant or concessionaire responsible for the design or construction or maintenance of road safety standards. Give a deadline to fix these, and then initiate new penalties for drivers.
  • This would mean that the Greater Chennai Corporation and the State Highways must repair all pavements, remove obstructions placed by encroachers, permanent illegal structures built on public spaces and along roads including religious structures and provide street lighting. Religious structures can be relocated to other sites.
  • Make jurisdictional Traffic Police Station responsible for maintenance of road intersection, traffic signal, signage at the road junction.
  • Where the public provides evidence that police personnel looked on at an obvious and major violation and took no action, departmental action should be initiated on them
  • Where policemen are caught taking bribes, initiate proceedings for dismissal to send out the right message

Unfortunately, the high quantum of fines can produce a major failure, since the Police and RTOs are hesitant to levy large sums on many law-flouting individuals who have modest income and have been used to a relaxed environment where anything goes so long as they don’t collide with someone causing death or disability. Two RTOs who spoke to this writer said many commercial vehicles are nothing more than junk, and the quantum of fines for multiple violations could exceed their market value.

Without a calibrated approach that tightens the working of the traffic enforcement machinery, making them credible, professional and unbiased, and improves road infrastructure, public resentment is bound to rise, leading to a political decision to relax enforcement altogether. This is what happened with the helmet law.


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