While assessing whether the 30ML outer limit of alcohol consumption as fixed under Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 for a person driving the vehicle, is correct, the Madras High Court on Friday proposed that the central government should contemplate a zero tolerance regime for drunk driving.
"…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," Justice R. Mahadevan said.
The order was made in light of the fact that despite the law's stern approach towards drunken driving offenders, societal attitudes had not changed and that it continued to costs lives. In this regard, the court referred to the judgment rendered by the Apex Court in State of Tamil Nadu Rep. by its Secretary v. K. Balu & Anr., wherein it recognized the feeble implementation of the drunken driving law. It had remarked therein,
"We are conscious of the fact that the policy of the Union government to discontinue liquor vends on national highways may not eliminate drunken driving completely. A driver of a motor vehicle can acquire liquor even before the commencement of a journey or, during a journey at a place other than a national or state highway. The law on preventing drunken driving also requires proper enforcement......"
The court emphasized that the need for zero-tolerance regime was important from two aspects:
Firstly, that Indian roads and traffic was much poorer as compared to other jurisdictions. "This makes drunken driving all the more dangerous, and this Court does not think that it is possible to ignore these conditions, especially given our experience with fatalities caused to third parties by reported incidents of drunken driving," the court said.
Secondly, it opined that the effect of alcohol varied on an individual basis and that "While Section 185 prescribes the so called 'limits', it is duty-bound to observe that these limits seem to be theoretical. The effect of alcohol on an individual can vary widely."
Stating that India had overtaken China as the single largest contributor to the global number of road deaths in 2006 and that more than 130,000 people were killed on debilitated Indian roads during 2015, the high court pressed on the urgent need to combat drunken driving.
In this regard, it recognized the vital role played by Breath analyzers that act as "important weapons" in the hands of the police to administer quick roadside tests and suggested that the same should be coupled with arrangements to suspend the driving licence of the violator, promptly, to deter prospective violators. The court explained,
"On a conjoint reading of clause (f) of sub-section 1 of Section 19 of the Motor Vehicles Act with clause (16) of Rule 21 of the Central Rules, 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."
These directions were prompted by the mess that Indian roads have become. Citing the statistics on accidents that occurred due to drunken driving, the court remarked,
"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."
The above said observations were made in an appeal against the order of the Motor Accident Claims Tribunal, wherein the Tribunal had apportioned contributory negligence between the Appellant and the Insurer of the Respondent at 40% and 60% respectively.
The claim of the Appellant, K. Shanmugam, was that a car driven by the Respondent's driver came at a high speed and hit him and the pillion rider, which resulted in fracture on his left ankle, besides multiple bodily injuries.
On finding that the Appellant was in a drunken state when the accident occurred, the Tribunal deducted 40% towards contributory negligence on the part of the Appellant and directed the Insurer to pay 60%, i.e., a sum of Rs.39,500/- along with interest and costs.
Branding that the quantum so awarded as disproportionate to the nature of the injuries sustained, the Appellant had approached the high court, seeking enhancement of the compensation awarded by the Tribunal.
However, in light of the above stringent approach that high court suggested should be adopted towards drunken driving, the court said that the Tribunal had erred in fixing 60% contributory negligence on the Respondent.
"…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 said.
Accordingly, it set aside the 60% liability of the insurer and held that no relief could be granted to the Appellant.
The Appellant was represented by Advocate U. M. Ravichandran and the Respondent Insurance Company by Advocate I. Malar
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