Traffic Laws and Road Safety Issues in India

  • Introduction
  • Important Traffic Laws in India
  • Traffic and Road Safety Issues
  • International Best Practices
  • Case laws


India has the second largest road networks in the world and accounts for 10% of worldwide road fatalities. Laws regulating the traffic on the road are provided under the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 is an Act of passed by the Parliament of India which came into force from July 1, 1989 and is applicable to whole of India however lapses in traffic laws regulations, violations and accidents are glaring reality. India was having such enactment in place since the year 1914 but the menace of driving is still on and victims look upon the suitability of laws to curb such menace. Various important judgments are there reflecting upon concerns on road safety issue some of the important ones are discussed herein. Road accidents, traffic jams, road rage, under-age driving, driving under the influence of alcohol are some of the prime issues which essentially makes it important to reflect upon the current situations. Driving sensibly is a responsibility-legal, social and moral, however rarely seen. Omission of this duty can bring the irresponsible driver, owner of the vehicle, insurer and others not only in a legal battle but huge pain and sufferings for victim and his family members suffering for life. The article focuses on legal situations and how the precedents have evolved in this matter.

 A. Important Traffic Laws in India

Road safety is a State subject. The administration of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 is under the transport Department, which is one of the largest revenue earning departments. The aforesaid Act provides in detail the legislative provisions regarding licensing of drivers/conductors, registration of motor vehicles, control of motor vehicles through permits, special provisions relating to state transport undertakings, traffic regulation, insurance, liability, offences and penalties, etc. For exercising the legislative provisions of the Act, the Government of India made the Central Motor Vehicles Rules 1989. Additionally, there are Rules of Road Regulations, 1989. The aforesaid Transport Department works with two of the concerned authorities, under Section 68 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. The RTO with which every individual is interacting , its services are discussed below:

Services Provided by R

The compliances of these regulations formulated are enforced by the enforcement agencies including Traffic police. If in any case somebody violates the rules and regulations related to traffic laws then they are bound to issue Challans against the offender under penal actions as per Motor Vehicle Act, 1988. It is important to understand what law says about the compliances required for driving a vehicle and what are the  duties of owner of vehicle.

  1. Law relating to Registration of Vehicle 
  • Mandatory Registration: Under section 39 of the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988  it prohibits driving of any motor vehicle or any vehicle, which is not registered or no owner of vehicle should permit driving of an unregistered vehicle in public place which is not registered under the provision of the MV Act. Exception to this provision is cars with the dealers.
  • Jurisdiction for Application: Registration of the vehicle is done by the concerned authority is done on the basis of your residence or place of residence or place of business, where the vehicle is normally kept.
  • Application for Jointly owned Vehicle: In case of joint ownership, the registration of vehicle can be applied by one of the owners. If a vehicle registered in one state is kept in another state for more than a period of 12 months, then owner of such vehicle has to approach the registration authority for assignment of new registration mark within whose jurisdiction the vehicle is.
  • Change of Address: If there is change of address, then also, the owner of vehicle is required to approach the authority within 30 days in whose jurisdiction he has shifted for recording the change of address.
  1. Law relating to Driving License
  • Effective Driving License: Any person not otherwise disqualified to hold a driving license may apply for it. As per the Section 3 of the Central Motor Vehicle Act, 1988 says nobody can drive at any public place until he holds an effective driving license issued to him authorizing him to drive the vehicle. Exception to drive a transport vehicle such a motor cab or motor vehicle hired by him for his own use or rented under a scheme.
  • Age Limit for obtaining the driving license: No person who is below the age of 18 years shall drive a motor vehicle in a public place. But a motor vehicle of engine capacity not exceeding 50cc can be driven under the age of 16 years. No person under the age of 20 years shall drive a transport vehicle.
  • Learner’s License: The Learner’s license means a license issued by a competent authority to drive as a learner or a motor vehicle specified under a special class or description. The validity period of learner’s license is 6 months. Jurisdiction for issuing learner’s license is on the basis of place you reside or where you work for gain or on the basis of school or place where he intends to receive driving instructions.
  • Learner’s license to drive a transport vehicle: It cannot be given unless he drives a light motor vehicle for one year.
    Learner’s License to drive a LMV: No person under the age of 18 years shall be granted a learners license to drive a motor vehicle without gear except in writing with person having care of person having the desire of learner’s license. Medical certificate is required with the application form in case of vehicle other than LMV.
  • Test of competence to drive a vehicle: It would be given in the vehicle specified in application to obtain the driving license.
  • Power to Revoke License: Licensing authority has power to revoke the license of medically unfit person. Automatic suspension of license by a person who has caused death or grievous hurt of one or more persons. The person should not suffer from any disability. The Registering authority has power to cancel the registration of vehicle that is lost, destroyed or has been permanently rendered incapable for use. If the engine number or chassis number differ from RC, then also registering authority can cancel the registration.
  • Conditions under which Licensing Authority can revoke a License
  • Habitual Criminal
  • Drunkard
  • Addicted to Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic substances
  • Has used or is using a motor vehicle in commissioning of offence
  • Any fraud or misrepresentation in obtaining the DL
  • Driving to cause danger to public on the basis of previous conduct
  • A person under the age of 18 years who has been granted the learner’s license is at present not under the care of such guardian.
  • Duty to Produce License and Certificate of Registration: The driver of any motor vehicle is duty bound to produce it for examination it for authorities in uniform. The person is also duty bound to stop the vehicle if the vehicle is involved in accident.
  • Responsibility of Owner of Vehicle: Section 5 of the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988 it clearly says that the owner of the vehicle has a responsibility to not allow driving a vehicle who does not satisfy above conditions.
  1. Law relating to Pedestrian

Indian law under the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988 and other related act provide for preventing the vehicles to run on footpaths. There are several Acts that safeguard pedestrian rights indirectly. The Indian Penal Code (1860) sections 279[1], 304 (Punishment for Culpable Homicide not Amounting to Murder), and 336[2]/337/338 protects the public, which includes pedestrians, against rash driving and negligence by motorists. The Motor Vehicles Act (1988), sections 7-38 talks about penalizing the motorists exceeding speed limits and license regulation etc, indirectly protecting vulnerable road users. Section 138 clause (h & i) empowers the State government to prevent motor vehicles from using the pavements for driving or parking. The Rules of the Road Regulation (1989) has three rules mentioning pedestrians or their right of way, which are:

  • The duty of the driver to slow down when approaching a pedestrian crossing (Rule 8)
  • That no driver can park a motor vehicle near a traffic light or on a pedestrian crossing or a footpath (Rule 15)
  • Motor vehicles are not allowed to drive on the footpaths or cycle lane except with permission from the police officer on duty (Rule 11)

The Municipal Corporation Acts also protect public roads and streets by terming all obstructions illegal unless they are made with the prior permission of the collector. They are entitled to ascertain the footpath width based on width of the public roads. Under the Persons with Disabilities (equal opportunities, protection of rights and full participation) Act (1995), the government must provide for auditory signals, engraving on the zebra crossings, slopes in pavements for easy access of wheel chair, and warning signals at appropriate places.

B. Traffic and Road Safety Issues

  1. Footpaths not safe for pedestrians: The roads are the most important public spaces in cities and pedestrians are its largest users, but less than 30% of urban roads in India have footpaths. Grave concern can be observed regarding safety of pedestrian to see the footpaths being used by two wheelers, zebra crossing usage culture is missing and crossing any road is uphill task. Despite the laws in place, urban areas can clearly seen encroachment of footpaths by bikes with no action taken. The International Federation of Pedestrians has been explicitly advocating the right to walk in public spaces as a basic human right but yet the picture of same to be implemented in full is yet to be achieved. There is a need to build more roads, make them safer for use of pedestrians throughout India. Since the law is in place, effective enforcement is required.
  1. Road Rage: Road rage is an expression of human behavior with criminal consequences. There is no clear law defining road rage in India. Literally, Road Rage is a term used to refer to the violent incidents caused by stress while driving on high traffic zones on roadways casing death, attempt to cause death or injury. Most of the incidents of road rage occur during peak traffic hours. Prime reasons associated with the incidents of road rage are: Traffic congestion, Noise levels, time constraints, alcohol consumption. Road rage is considered as a criminal offence, which may lead to serious injuries and even death. While there are no clear laws specifying road rage in India, it high time for the government to define and enforce strictly so that people do not take law into their own hands as the same has become a real menace and cause of concern about safety of an individual on road.
  1. Drunken Driving: Impairment by alcohol is an important factor in causing accidents and it has been found as per study reflected on different websites that alcohol was present in between 33% and 69% of fatally injured drivers, and in between 8% and 29% of drivers involved in crashes who were not fatally injured. A study on drivers killed in road crashes has revealed that teenage drivers have more than 5 times the risk of a crash compared with drivers aged 30 and above, at all level of BAC. Drivers 22 to 29 years old were estimated to have 3 times the risk compared with drivers aged 30 years and above, at all BAC levels. Alcohol consumption by drivers puts pedestrians and riders of motorized two wheelers at risk. In Sanjeev Nanda Case discussed below the Hon’ble Court highlights the same well.


Sanjiv Nanda’s Case: In the case State Transport Police Station Lodhi Road vs. Sanjeev Nanda[3] important judgment from perspective of road safety. The Respondent in this case was charged under Section 201, 304 (I), 308 r/w section 34 IPC for driving his car rashly and negligently and hitting 7 persons. As per judgment, it was highlighted accident means unintended unforeseen occurrences, something that could not be anticipated in course of events. Thus, injury or accidents is not attributable to per se to the intention. If intention is proved and death is caused then it amounts to culpable homicide. It was held by the Hon’ble judge that intention to cause death was not there but the knowledge was there and hence he is liable under section 304 II IPC. The Hon’ble Court found that accident occurred wholly and solely on account of rash and negligent act of the BMW driven by the Respondent.

It was further observed by court that it is difficult to say at what point liquor would begin to show its effect or would be at its peak is difficult to assess. Further, the court pertinently mentions that even after hitting one, the accused didn’t apply the brakes so as to save at least some of the lives. The court observed in its findings that the Respondent instead of lending helping hand ran away from the accident site and also observed that it is not good to run away from the accident site rather a medical help should be given to give it a human touch. An aspect that is lost in such cases is that bodily injury or death may ensue. Regarding the collection of evidence of breath test, Justice K.S Radhakrishnana observed that the accused in this case escaped from the scene and he could not be subjected to breath analyzer test instantaneously. The court observed that cumulative effect of section 205 of the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988 is different. The purpose of the aforesaid section is to be carried when the person is driving or attempting to drive. The court also observed that drunken driving is menace to the society. Late night parties with drunken driving have now become way of life followed by drunken driving. Alcohol consumption impairs vision and it is impossible to judge accurately how far the object is.

No legal obligation is cast upon by-stander either under Motor vehicle Act or any other legislations but greater responsibility is cast on them because they are people at the scene of occurrence and immediate and prompt medical attention can help the victim and the dear ones. Court observed that private hospitals and government hospitals near highways where traffic is high should be equipped with the facilities to meet the emergencies. In view of the judgment passed by the Hon’ble Court in Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti vs.State of West Bengal & Ors[4]. the court referred to the report of Justice Lilamoy Ghose and directed the Union regarding immediate medical attention to the victim directing Union to comply by the same, if not done so far. The court also observed that passing vehicle do not stop to help the victims in such a situations too.

4. Ban on Use of Dark, Black and Reflective Glasses: Use of dark, black or reflective glasses in vehicles is not permitted as per law. As per the orders of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, use of black film or any other material is not permitted on the windscreen and side windows of vehicles. Violation is punishable with challan and on-the-spot removal of film. Only company fitted tinted glasses permitted, with 70% visual transmission of light with windscreen & rear window and 50% visual transmission of light for side windows. In Avishekha Goenka vs. Union of India[5] the Hon’ble Supreme Court had banned the use of black films for any VLT percentage or any material upon the safety glasses, wind screens front or rear or side glasses of all vehicles through out the country. This directions are enforceable from May 4, 2012.

5.Missing Speed Breaker: Speed breakers are traffic-calming devices constructed in accident-prone areas. Driving at high speed in locality is not uncommon and the common road safety violators. In Delhi, if a stretch of road becomes accident prone for some reason and the local residents want to get a speed breaker constructed, an application may be sent to DCP/Traffic (HQ), New Delhi. On receipt of the application, it is analyzed from traffic point of view and recommendation is sent to Speed Breaker Committee, which decides the construction or removal of any speed breaker. This committee consists of representatives of MCD, NDMC, PWD, CRRI, Traffic Police and concerned residents welfare association.

6. Under age driving: Of recently, the driving by under age people is not uncommon on Indian roads. The biggest problem is that parents are encouraging underage driver when law clearly does not permit. Even parents who sit behind the driver’s seat when minor is driving, is also wrong under prevailing law. Often when the accident occurs, the culpability of the parents is booked for failing to meet moral and legal responsibility. Schools can play active role in educating students and parents with menace of minor driving.

C. International Best Practices

Our traffic and road safety measures need urgent attention. International best practices can be one of the best example to support the same. Some of the best road safety measures adopted across the globe are:

  1. Sustainable Safe Road System in Netherland: It aims to prevent crashes and even if it occurs it intends to minimize the consequences, which include increase in size of zones to 30km/hr in, built up areas and 60km/hr outside built up areas. Sustainable safety is important vision leading to road safety since early nineties.
  2. Road Safety Audits: It is a formal procedure for independent assessment of the crash potential and likely safety performance of a specific design. The idea of road safety audits was first developed by Great Britain and since then adopted by many countries.
  3. Safety Inspection: Designates a periodic review by a trained expert of the safety aspect. It involves safety inspections by trained experts.
  4. Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Use: Bicycle helmet contains thick layer of polystyrene. Mandatory bicycle helmets should be done by regulation of law and campaigns and enforcements.
  5. Bicycle Side Reflections: To increase their visibility during night and twilight on front and rear side of the bicycle is reflected to reduce accidents.

Promissory best practices includes:

  1. Intelligent Speed Assistance: Speed is the most important contributor of accidents. Placement of such devices in the vehicle can help in comparing the speed of drivers at particular locations and warn the drivers exceeding speed limits.
  2. Alcohol Ignition Interlock: The device that prevent vehicle being started if the driver is too drunk. Alcolocks are devices that originate from US, Canada and Australia.
  3. Compulsory curriculum on road safety from Kindergarten till driving license Stage: Educative Continuum in France is one such initiative of the Transport Ministry.

D. Case Laws

  1. S. Rajseekharan’s Case: In S. Rajsheekharan vs. Union of India[6] in this matter the Petitioner being Head of the Department and leading Orthopedics Surgeon filed the aforesaid petition seeking court’s intervention in light of increasing road accidents seeking:
  • Directions for enactment of appropriate legislative measures
  • More affirmative administrative actions
  • Upliftment of existing infrastructure and facilities for post accident care and management.

In view of the paucity of time, the Hon’ble Court constituted a committee to undertake the process of monitoring on behalf of the court consisting of Hon’ble Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan (Judge Supreme Court); Mr. S. Sunder (Distinguished Fellow TERI); Dr. S. Nishi Mittal (Ex. Chief Scientist, CRRI). The matter was posted for hearing six months later.

2. Justice Radhakrishnan’s Report: The report proposed stern action against the violators of the law under section 19 of the Motor Vehicle’s Act, 1988  which provide power to licensing authority to disqualify from holding a driving license or revoke such license by passing an order disqualifying the holder of driving license for a specified period and seeking imprisonment wherever it is provided under law for:

  • Driving at speed limit excellent limit
  • Jumping red light
  • Driving vehicles under drink and drugs
  • Use of mobile phones

Helmet laws be made applicable in all UTs in India including for pillion riders failing which they would be required to undergo two hours counseling sessions


Roads are biggest source of interconnectivity within state and across and inter-county cooperation can give them international dimensions too. They are source of providing social, financial, health, tourism connectivity for every individual however, if safety is forgotten they can give an individual and others fatal consequences. It is important to realize that right to life and liberty involves ensuring safety at every level including while we are walking or driving on roads. With rise of road safety concerns and so much being being done to increase road transport, there is a need to sensitize the drivers on road about the responsibility towards environment, fellow people on and traffic. It is often contended by people at large that the fine being to small provides ample reason why the violations are more. However, the theory of less fine for traffic violations is beyond acceptance as the consequences of any such careless act irrespective of fine in place is causing a bigger loss of human life or permanent or temporary disability with same ensuing consequences for the victims family as well as for accused. There is definitely need for strict traffic laws and its compliances but the same can be not just ensured by increasing the number of traffic challans alone but by rigorous road safety sensitization programmes right from kindergarten and considering the magnitude of such problem the programmes should be done at organizational levels by NGOs, Government bodies and institutes of road safety. There is a need to understand that we have not jumped on road to enter a race where we do zig-zag driving, overtaking from wrong side, honking the moment the light turns green or is about to turn red or even jump red lights. A small illustration is famous line LANE DRIVING IS SANE DRIVING is overlooked even though we keep teaching small kids to walk in line daily. It is ironical that respect for human life and law would come from increasing deterrence on road safety laws infact the same should commence the moment we hold the steering or think of passing it someone. Legislative revision to update the law regarding road safety is necessary but the same does not obviate the reason to violate any law.

[1] 279. Rash driving or riding on a public way-Whoever drives any vehicle, or rides, on any public way in a manner so rash or negligent as to endanger human life, or to be likely to cause hurt or injury to any other person, shall be punished with im­prisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees, or with both.

[2] Whoever does any act so rashly or negligently as to endanger human life or the personal safety others, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months or with fine which may extend to two hundred and fifty rupees, or with both.

[3] SLP Crl. 3292 of 2010

[4] (1996) 4 SCC 37

[5] Writ petition Civil 265 of 2011

[6] W.P. 295 of 2012

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