The sole statute governing road safety in India is the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, which in its present form is inadequate piece of legislation that fails to address prevailing systemic challenges that make Indian roads the most unsafe in the world. Since its 1939 version, this legislation has been amended four times in an attempt to address the need for road safety from accidents in the modern era. From time to time, this has necessitated changes in the standards for motor vehicles to speedier, greater compensation packages for victims of road accidents.

In the Statements of Objects and Reasons of the Motor Vehicles Act (59 of 1988), which came into force with effect on 1.07.1989, the amendment was drafted to account for changes in the road transport technology, pattern of passenger and freight movements, developments of the road network in the country and the improved techniques in the motor vehicles management. With an agenda to update, simplify and rationalize the law, a Working Group was constituted in January, 1984 to review all the provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1939 and to submit draft proposals for a comprehensive legislation to replace the existing Act. It took into account the suggestions and recommendations made by institutions like the Central Institute of Road Transport (CIRT), Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI), and other transport organizations including, the manufacturers and the general public. Additionally, it took comments from the Transport Minister’s of the various State Governments as well. It was decided that the major changes that the Amendment would focus on were:

  1. The fast increasing number of both commercial vehicles and personal vehicles in the country;
  2. The need for encouraging adoption of higher technology in automotive sector;
  3. The greater flow of passenger and freight with the least impediments so that islands of isolation are not created leading to regional or local imbalances;
  4. Concern for road safety standards, and pollution-control measures, standards for transportation of hazardous and explosive materials;
  5. Simplification of procedure and policy liberalization’s for private sector operations in the road transport field;
  6. Need for effective ways of tracking down traffic offenders;
  7. Stricter procedures relating to the grant of driving licenses and the period of validity;
  8. Laying down of standards for the components and parts of motor vehicles;
  9. Standards for anti-pollution control devices;
  10. Provision for issuing fitness certificates of vehicles also by the authorized testing stations;
  11. Enabling provision for updating the system of registration marks;
  12. Administration of the Solatium Scheme by the General Insurance Corporation;
  13. Provision for payment of compensation by the insurer to the extent of actual liability to the victims of motor accidents irrespective of the class of vehicles;
  14. Maintenance of State registers for driving licenses and vehicle registration; and
  15. Constitution of Road Safety Councils.

In addition to the above modifications, a Supreme Court ruling in M.K. Kunhimohammed v. P.A. Ahmedkutty (1987) 4 SCC 284 also suggested to raise the limit of compensation payable as a result of motor accidents in various circumstances which were also incorporated into the Amendment Act.

Based on the various representations and submissions from State Government Transport Operators and public relating to the inconvenience faced due to the operation of the 1988 Amendment, a Review Committee was constituted in March, 1990 to examine the Act. The observations made by the Review Committee were sent as a report to the various State Governments. This Report of the Review Committee was then placed before the Transport Development Council which made the following suggestions/observations to be accounted for in the new Amendment:

  • Introduction of newer type of vehicles and the fast increasing number of both commercial and personal vehicles in the country;
  • Providing adequate compensation to victims of road accidents without going into long drawn procedure;
  • Protecting consumers’ interest in Transport Sector;
  • Concern for road safety standards, transport of hazardous chemicals and pollution control;
  • Delegation of greater powers to State Transport Authorities and rationalizing the role of public authorities in certain matters; and
  • The simplification of procedures and policy liberalization in the field of road transport.

This ultimately resulted in the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 54 of 1994 which came into force on 14.11.1994.

Subsequently, to address environmental concerns by reducing the levels of vehicular pollution and also to ensure the safety of road users, the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 27 of 2000 came in to force on 11.08.2000. It proposed to allow renewal of permits, driving licenses and registration certificates granted under the 1939 Act to be renewed under the 1988 Act by inserting Section 217 – A.

The latest amendment made, the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 39 of 2001 was brought into force on 11.09.2001 in order to encourage the operation of vehicles with eco-friendly fuels to further the maintenance of a clean environment. This was further brought about to prevent additional indiscipline on the roads due to the lack of regulation for eco-friendly vehicles. Vehicles like the CNG-operated type had increased tremendously and therefore, the exemptions from permits of such vehicles under Section 66 and Section 67 had to been removed so that CNG-operated vehicles could also be covered by the terms and conditions applicable to all other vehicles.

However, the MVA, in its present form is an inadequate piece of legislation that fails to achieve the broader objects and purposes of its enactment in the first place. An alarming point to note here, in contrast to its stated agenda for improving road safety, is that such a legislation does not comprehensively address, recognize or even consider non-motorized road users like pedestrians, cyclists, children and senior citizens which constitute a major percentage of road-users in the country.

For the last decade or so (since the last major amendment to the Motor Vehicles Act), fatal accidents have increased by 5.8% per year. Additionally, every year, the severity of road accidents, measured in terms of persons killed per 100 accidents, has also increased from 20.8 in 2001 to 31.4 in 2014. The number of people who died in road accidents in 2002 was 73,650 which increased to 1,41, 526 in 2014. Essentially, more than 1.2 million people have lost their lives in road accidents in the past decade. These numbers depict the gruesome truth about the prevailing times.