Debating India’s new hit-and-run law

GS Paper II

News Excerpt:

Transporters and commercial drivers from States like Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, and Punjab have staged protests against the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, 2023 (BNS) concerning hit-and-run incidents.

About the news:

  • Section 106 (2) of the BNS stipulates a penalty of up to 10 years in jail and a fine for fleeing an accident spot and failing to report the incident to a police officer or a magistrate.
    • This law is in addition to the colonial-era provision on causing death due to rash or negligent acts under Section 304A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
  • Protestors are demanding the withdrawal or amendment of Section 106 (2), backed by the threat of a nationwide strike if their demands are unmet.

Need for the law:

  • In 2022, India registered the highest count of road crash fatalities, exceeding 1.68 lakh deaths.
    • This translates to an average of 462 deaths daily, an average of 19 deaths every hour, and nearly one death every three and a half minutes. 
  • Despite a 5% global decrease in road crash deaths, India witnessed a year-on-year increase of 12% in road accidents and 9.4% in fatalities in the same year.
  • Over half of all road fatalities occurred on national and state highways, which form less than 5% of the total road network.
  • With only 1% of the world’s vehicles, India accounts for about 10% of crash-related deaths and incurs an annual economic loss of 5-7% of its GDP due to road crashes.

Demands of the protestors:

  • Transporters are protesting the severe punishment of 10 years imprisonment and ₹7 lakh fine for drivers who flee the scene of an accident without reporting it.
  • They argue that this punishment is excessive and fails to consider the challenges faced by drivers, such as long driving hours and difficult roads.
  • They also argue that accidents may be caused by factors beyond the driver's control, such as poor visibility due to fog.
  • Fears of mob violence against drivers who stop to assist injured at accident sites have fuelled the protests against the law.
  • The drivers believe that they are often unfairly blamed for accidents, and the punishment provided by the law is disproportionate and does not align with the realities of road transport and the nature of accidents.
  • They also fear law enforcement agencies may abuse the law to their detriment.

Principles underlying the law:

  • The National Crime Records Bureau reported 47,806 hit-and-run incidents in 2022, resulting in 50,815 deaths.
  • Penal laws serve different purposes, including deterring reckless driving and punishing offenders who attempt to escape the law after causing death.
  • These laws create a positive obligation for offenders to report incidents to the police or magistrate and criminalise omissions in performing this duty.
  • The imposition of this legal duty stems from legislative intent to enforce moral responsibility towards victims of road accidents.
    • Conversion of moral responsibility into a legal duty: Section 134 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, requires drivers to secure medical attention for injured persons unless impossible due to mob fury or other reasons beyond their control.
  • The Delhi High Court also identified whether the offender's fleeing from the scene was a significant factor in motor accident claims in the Rajesh Tyagi versus Jaibir Singh case.

Are the protests justified?

  • The widely circulated view that Section 106 (2) of the BNS stipulates a maximum punishment of 10 years and a fine of ₹7 lakh for fleeing an accident spot and failing to report the incident to a police officer/magistrate is incorrect.
    • The BNS does not mention the fine being ₹7 lakh.
  • Section 161 of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019 compensates victims of hit-and-run accidents with compensation for death (₹2 lakh) and grievous hurt (₹50,000).
    • However, the compensation is not recoverable from the drivers.
  • Sub-section 1 of Section 106 applies to rash or negligent driving, where if the driver reports the incident to the police, they face a punishment of up to five years with a fine.
    • However, in the latter case of 106 (2), if the driver fails to report the matter and escapes, they will be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
      • Despite the increase in the quantum of punishment in this section, the offence has not been made non-bailable.

Way Forward:

  • Revisit and reconcile two clauses in the BNS to ensure that over 35 lakh truck drivers in the country are not treated unfairly.
    • For instance, an exception has been made under 106 (1) of the BNS for doctors in the event of rash or negligent acts, where the punishment will be up to two years with a fine. This limited categorisation is against the principles of equality, as the liability of a wide variety of people working in other sectors also needs to be moderated.
  • Section 106 (2) should be revisited to differentiate between rash and negligent driving to prevent unfair treatment of drivers in different circumstances and address ambiguities among drivers.
    • This would involve categorising 10 years of imprisonment for all cases based on liabilities rather than ruling 10 years for all cases.
  • The applicability of Section 106 (2) should be invoked only in cases of death due to an accident.
    • Minor injuries should not be equated with criminal acts, and measures like community service, revoking driving licenses, or mandatory driving retests could be used to criminalise road accidents.


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