Drunken Driving: Law should be amended to incorporate Zero Tolerance policy, Madras HC

Drunken Driving: Law should be amended to incorporate Zero Tolerance policy, Madras HC

Meera Emmanuel

The Madras High Court on Friday pressed for the need to introduce appropriate amendments to the Motor Vehicle law in India so that there is a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drunken driving.

In this regard, Justice R Mahadevan observed,

…. since Section 185 is placed in Chapter 13 of the Motor Vehicles Act, the Central Government is to consider a suitable amendment in this regard by allowing various State Governments / Union Territories to adopt a zero tolerance norm in Section 185 itself. The time has now come for just such a measure. Too many lives have already been lost to this lethal cocktail of internal consumption and internal combustion.

The Court proceeded to remark,

It is not possible to countenance an argument that any person has a fundamental right to drink, let alone to drink any amount and then get behind the wheel of a motor-car or onto a two-wheeler. Even the most minute impairment caused by alcohol intake might have the most disastrous consequences.

It was also emphasised that the authorities must be prompt in suspending the driving licence of persons found to have committed the offence of drunken driving (as per Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act) as a deterrent measure.

…this Court finds that on registration of an offence under Section 185, the power to suspend the driving licence under Section 19 can be exercised by the Licencing Authority. The Licencing Authorities will have to invoke the said power in the cases of violation of clause (a) of Section 185. The exercise of the said power may have the desired deterrent effect. The State Government will have to issue appropriate directions to ensure that there is a proper coordination between the Police and the Licencing Authorities so that an action of suspension of the driving licence is initiated immediately after the offence is committed.”

The remarks were made in the backdrop of the Court’s observations concerning reports of deaths due to drunken driving in India. The judge observed,

Drunken driving has been responsible for at least 70% of all fatal road accidents in Delhi, which reports between 1,500 to 1,700 road fatalities and 6,000 to 75,500 grievous injuries in road accidents every year. As many as 295,967 drunken driving cases were registered between 2006 and 2014 and Rs.45.55 crore of fines were collected from the offenders. Out of this, 58,232 drivers have been jailed since 2007, and the driving licences of 48,601 offenders have been cancelled. In the first six months of 2015, more than 15,000 convictions have been handed out. All these accidents have been caused only due to drunken driving.”

All the same, the Court observed that the law against drunken driving is not taken seriously in India.

“…this Court is constrained to express grave concern about the growing problem of driving while under the influence of alcohol. Daily newspapers clearly demonstrates the likely impairment of cognitive functions essential to driving a vehicle caused by an intake of alcohol. While Section 185 prescribes the so- called ‘limits’, it is duty-bound to observe that these limits seem to be theoretical…

Further, despite the law’s seemingly stern approach to drunken driving offenders, societal attitudes, by far and large, do not match…. many Indians are still getting behind the wheel whilst intoxicated.

With these observations, the Court proceeded to adopt a strict approach in dealing with the case before it, which involved allegations that a person seeking compensation for a motor accident had himself been driving drunkenly at the time of the accident. The Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal (MACT) had, therefore, deducted 40% of the compensation amount towards the contributory negligence of the claimant, and ordered the insurer to pay Rs 39,500 along with interests and costs.

The claimant challenged the same before the High Court, contending that the reduced compensation was disproportionate to the injuries suffered by him owing to being hit by the ambassador car insured. It was argued that there was no concrete evidence to prove the claimant’s involvement in the accident due to drunken driving.

The insurance company, on the other hand, contended that the claim itself ought to have been dismissed since the claimant was a tort-teaser to the accident. It was argued that the company was not liable to pay the claim since the claimant was in a drunken state during the accident.

The Court, in turn, ruled in the insurance company’s favour observing that,

“… since this Court, by the above reasonings, has come to the conclusion to adopt stringent views on drunken driving, the findings rendered by the Tribunal, on contributory negligence as well as quantum, have no legs to stand. This Court finds that the claimant himself was the tort-feasor and was responsible for the accident. As such, the question of fastening liability either on the owner or on the Insurance Company does not arise.”

The Court, therefore, dismissed the claimant’s appeal. Further, it set aside the MACT ruling as far it ordered the insurance company to pay the claimant 60% compensation (after deduction of 40% towards the claimant’s “contributory negligence”).

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