Why the Highway Liquor Ban Will Only Make a Small Dent in Curbing Road Accidents

A policy that seeks to reduce road accidents must recognise that this is primarily a behavioural problem and that there is a need to inculcate civic sense and respect for the law among people.

The Supreme Court recently ordered a total ban on the sale of liquor within 500 metres of national and state highways throughout the country, noting that drunk driving was one of the leading causes of road accidents in the country. A look at the 2015 report on road accidents by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), however, suggests otherwise. The share of accidents caused due to the consumption of alcohol/drugs constitutes a small percentage – 3.3% – of all road accidents (16,298 out of 5,01,423 accidents) and 4.6% of fatalities (6,755 out of 1,46,133 deaths). This means that over 96% of road accidents were caused not by drunk drivers but by sober people.

Evidence from data

The report looks at a variety of causes and correlating factors behind road accidents, including defective roads, pot holes and poor light. It finds that the single largest cause of road accidents and fatalities in 2015 was over-speeding, which has consistently remained the highest cause of road accidents over the past several years. Another 17% of deaths from accidents were caused by overloaded vehicles. What these statistics point to is the prevalence of an utter disregard for traffic rules among people, even when they are not under the influence of alcohol.

Banning the sale of alcohol along the national and state highways alone would, at best, produce a marginal decrease in the number of road accidents. Moreover, only half of the accidents occurred on state highways and national highways. What this means is that if the government imposed total alcohol prohibition in the country, it would approximately avert just over 3% of road accidents.

So, if the data is to be trusted, the Supreme Court’s order does not make statistical or logical sense because while it might lead to a slight reduction in drunk driving, it does not address the leading cause of fatal road accidents.

Can the data be trusted?

Taking a step back and examining the data, however, raises questions about its accuracy in representing the reality. First, data published by the MoRTH is based on incidents reported by the police and is, therefore, subject to the possibility of under-recording. A survey conducted by Community Against Drunk Driving, a Delhi-based NGO, claims that drunk driving is behind 70% of the road accidents in Delhi as against the 0.5% reported by the police. Such a chasm of difference between the data reported in the survey and that reported by the police renders the veracity of official statistics troublingly suspect.

It is possible that cases of drunk driving are recorded as over-speeding, causing data to be skewed disproportionately towards that. Causing an accident by over-speeding is a socially less censured offence than a drunk driving accident. For this reason, the offenders and their families might attempt to plead with or bribe the police to be booked under over-speeding instead of drunk driving. Second, it is possible that the police detachments lack the wherewithal to test blood alcohol levels in accident victims and therefore drunk driving gets misrecorded as over-speeding. These factors distort official data and must therefore be viewed with caution.

Also read: With Highway Liquor Ban, Supreme Court Has Over-Reached Itself

Behavioural issue

Let us assume that the MoRTH data understates the share of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs in causing road accidents. The effectiveness of banning the sale of liquor along highways in bringing down road accidents is still questionable because it is a rather circuitous attempt at treating the symptom rather than the disease. People and business establishments will eventually find a way to work around it, leaving the government to grapple with enforcement issues. Moreover, it only addresses part of the problem since half of all road accidents occur on roads that are not highways. Examined as a policy decision, this order fails to understand that the problem is our collective lack of civic sense and responsibility towards the lives of oneself and of others. The problem lies not in the consumption of alcohol but in the decision to drive after consuming alcohol, which, in turn, stems from a fundamental lack of respect for the law.

This lack of respect for law is also what manifests in the numerous blatant traffic violations that we witness every day on roads. People don’t wear seat belts and resist wearing helmets. In 2015, when the Madras high court order made wearing a helmet compulsory in the state, advocates of law in Madurai organised a two-wheeler rally against the rule. Cabs often do not have seat belt provisions for backseat passengers. Often, seat belts are removed from the backseat so that they can fit more passengers in. Lack of dedicated lanes on our roads makes it difficult for drivers to predict the movements of fellow drivers, often creating disorder during peak hours. Two-wheelers cruising on a narrow pedestrian footpath along the side of the road or vehicles trying to overtake each other through narrow spaces are not uncommon sights.

In 2015, the highest rate of road accidents occurred between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., when traffic is generally at its peak. Trucks and tractors carrying inverted pyramids of sugarcane stacks frequently overturn and cause fatal accidents for other riders and passers-by. Overloaded buses with people hanging by a foot or a hand from the vehicle pose a risk to not only those travelling on the bus but also to everyone in its path. Yet, we find people frantically throwing themselves at that swarm of people already barely clinging to the bus. A policy that seeks to reduce road accidents must recognise that this is primarily a behavioural problem and that there is a need to inculcate civic sense and respect for the law among the people.

Painless penalties

What does the violation of traffic rules cost? According to the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, the offences related to driving attract a penalty ranging from Rs 100 to a maximum of Rs 5,000. Over-speeding, which caused 673 deaths per day in 2015, currently attracts a penalty of Rs 400 under the Act. The penalty for rash driving is a fine of Rs 100. A serious offence such as dangerous or hasty driving would invite a fine of Rs 1,000 and/or six months imprisonment. Jumping a red light does not entail major penalty and is a very common practice.

The new Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2016, seeks to impose stringent measures and heftier fines for tackling traffic violations. However, the effectiveness of penalties to act as deterrents is limited by the number of violations that can be spotted by the police and the degree of corruption among the police. It may be seen from the 2015 MoRTH report that the maximum number of accidents occurred at uncontrolled areas (67%). On the other hand, the occurrence of road accidents was far lower in areas controlled by traffic police at 6.9%. This suggests that drivers tend to misbehave when not supervised by traffic police. Similarly, most of the accidents at unmanned level crossings on railways take place because of the negligence and carelessness on the part of the road user. The government has resorted to eliminating all unmanned level crossings in order to prevent fatalities that occur at there. Improved police patrolling could induce orderly behaviour on the road and reduce rash driving.

Banning the sale of liquor along highways is not a sustainable solution to reducing road accidents. This is true regardless of whether or not the data understates the share of alcohol-induced road accidents. A sizable reduction in road accidents can only be brought about by changing people’s attitude towards road discipline and their behaviour. Until then, one person will continue to die every four minutes in preventable road accidents.

Nithya Nagarathinam is a researcher currently working at J-PAL South Asia.