With our ever-advancing and fast-growing society, there is an increasing need for individuals to travel from one place to another. Transportation is essential for our daily needs, be it sociological or commercial, and therefore, a surge in the number of vehicles is seen in recent times. With the exponential surge in the number of vehicles, there comes one of its significant ill effects – road accidents. Road accidents in India are on the rise, with the country recording the highest ever number of deaths 2018.1 In order to govern the road transportation sector, the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 (hereinafter referred to as “Act”) regulates all the aspects of road transportation, including drivers of the motor vehicles, traffic regulation along with laying down offences and penalties. A recent amendment in the year 20192 increased penalty for several offences, including for offences covered under Motor Vehicle (Driving) Regulations 2017 (hereinafter referred to as “regulations”).
Distractions while Driving:
One of the main concerns attributed to road accidents is the distraction of the driver’s mind. While driving, the complete attention of the driver should be on the road. If a driver gets distracted, his attention diverts from the road to that distraction, which divides the brain’s capacity between the two tasks. Distractions such as indulging in conversations in a car, talking or using mobile phones, and listening to loud music in vehicles are on the rise, which is contributing to the increasing road accidents in India and many of them resulting in loss of lives. In order to curb distractions due to loud music, the Motor Vehicle Act provides for an offense for the same.
The government has framed Motor Vehicles (Driving) Regulations, 2017, under Section 118 of the Motor Vehicles Act. Section 5(10) of the regulation puts a bar on the driver to ensure that loud music is not played in a vehicle. Now under Section 177A of the Motor Vehicles Act, the driver is punishable for an offence committed under any regulation made under Section 118 of the Act. Since Motor Vehicles (Driving) Regulations, 2017 comes under the ambit of Section 118 of the Act, the driver can be penalised with a minimum fine of five hundred rupees with a maximum of one thousand rupees. With the introduction of Section 177A in the Act by Section 59 of the recent amendment3, it is ensured that loud music listeners do not go unpunished, and a stronger deterrent is imposed in order to reduce traffic accidents and ensure safety on the roads. However, the regulations do not throw any light on the means of listening to loud music, whether it is through a feature built-in the vehicle like a music player, or through external equipment like earphones or headphones.
Using Handsfree Methods:
As pointed out above earlier, the regulation under Section 5(10) does not mention any specific means of listening to loud music. One of them could be listening through handsfree earphones or headphones. Under Section 184 of the Act which covers dangerous driving exhibited on the road towards the public including the occupants of the vehicle, other road users and persons in the vicinity of the road, a driver is punishable for a minimum term of six months to one year or a fine ranging between one thousand rupees to five thousand rupees or both. Section 184 explicitly mentions about penalising dangerous driving. In its literal interpretation, it can be seen that there is no mention of a handsfree device meant for listening to music included. The statute intends to penalise drivers using handheld devices while driving because they act as a source of distraction. In a report by the World Health Organisation, the amount of time spent by drivers with their eyes off the road increases by 400% while texting and driving using mobile phones.4
Devices like earphones and headphones, though they may not be truly handheld, can also severely affect the ability of the driver to allocate his full attention to driving due to the proximity of such devices to the ear, just like a mobile phone. Moreover, these devices may obstruct the surrounding sounds like horns of other vehicles, thereby increasing the risks. By looking at the intention of the statute, it can be rightly said that in addition to listening to loud music, driving while listening to music or conversing through earphones or headphones can also be penalised under Section 184 of the Act. Various city police departments have already used Section 184 to enforce stringent measures about the usage of headphones while riding on the road.5 Kolkata Police does not take into account whether the earphone was in active use or not as determining the same is practically impossible for the traffic police officials.6 There seems to be a grey area of law that will continue to be under further debate until a firm legal provision on the same is enforced.
India, in 2015, signed the Brasilia Declaration, pledging to reduce deaths due to road accidents by 50% by the year 2020. With an increase of 4.63% to 1,51,417 deaths in 2018 as compared to 20157, and with the target soon approaching, the country still needs to go a long way. Moreover, India has been holding the number one spot in global road accident deaths since 2015 with an extremely high contribution of 11% to the global count.8 There is an urgent need to initiate and implement road safety reforms by the government in order to stabilise the degrading road safety situation and improve India’s position in road safety. While the amendment to the Motor Vehicles Act in 2019 based on the law commission report9 is a step towards the right direction, there is an urgent need for more such steps towards a secure road transportation environment within India.
1 Road Accidents in India – 2018 (Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, Government of India).
2 The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019.
4 Mobile Phone Use: A Growing Problem Of Driver Distraction (World Health Organization, 2011).
5 Reya Mehrotra, ‘Traffic police to crack down on towing vehicles’ Bangalore Mirror (2 July 2019) <https://bangaloremirror.indiatimes.com/bangalore/crime/traffic-police-to-crack-down-on-towing-vehicles/articleshow/70032564.cms> accessed on 29 May 2020.
6 Tamaghna Banerjee, ‘In use or not, headphones no music to police ears’ The Times of India (Kolkata, 5 March 2018) <https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/in-use-or-not-headphones-no-music-to-police-ears/articleshow/63163951.cms> accessed on 30 May 2020.
7 Road Accidents in India – 2018 (Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, Government of India)