8 Sep 2008, 0359 hrs IST, Dhananjay Mahapatra, TNN
A Class 5 student, after reading Saturday’s newspaper, came up with this question: Why did the Supreme Court award death penalty to a teacher guilty of raping and killing a 9-year-old but a trial court gave a five-year jail term to an intoxicated young man who had mowed down six innocents?
Attempts to explain the presence of criminal intention (mens rea) in one case and its absence in another proved futile as he supplemented his earlier query with this: How do you justify death penalty for a murder and five-year term for six murders?
A whopping 90,000 deaths occur on Indian roads every year due to accidents. Nearly 40% of them are caused by drunk driving. This means drunk driving accounts for nearly 36,000 lives.
One can brush aside a Class 5 student but how does one answer similar queries from relatives of those 36,000 who see it as nothing less than murder.
Drunk driving deaths evoke strong reaction everywhere. The punishments vary from country to country. In 1988 in US, a drunk pick-up truck driver travelling on the wrong side of a Kentucky highway collided head-on with a church bus carrying school children. Infamous as the Carrollton bus disaster, it left 27 dead and a over 30 injured.
What should be the "appropriate punishment" for the drunk driver who not only killed 27 people but also devastated many parents for life? A US trial court sentenced the man to 16 years in jail and the Kentucky Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. However, on account of good conduct, the man was released from prison five years ahead of time.
In 1999, a drunk lorry driver in Ottawa, Canada, ran over a car, leaving a young woman paraplegic and her boyfriend dead. The offender was awarded 10 years behind bars. Is it a harsh sentence? The young paraplegic may not think so.
In the BMW case, relatives of the US-educated young man who was awarded five-year jail term were visibly pained. The young man evoked sympathy from some sections, despite the attempts during trial to portray the vehicle involved as a truck and later manoeuvres to influence a key witness. What would have been the reaction of the sympathisers had a drunk driver mowed down six students in front of St Stephen’s College?
"Appropriate punishment" debate in hit-and-run cases stems from the provision of law. A rash and negligent driver running over pedestrians could be jailed for two years, but for an identical offence, an intoxicated driver could end up spending 10 years behind bars.
There are a host of judgments from the Supreme Court trying to explain what should be the appropriate punishment for an offence. In Jashubha Bharatsinh Gohil vs State of Gujarat [1994 (4) SCC 353], the SC had said that imposition of sentence without considering its effect on social order could be a futile exercise.
“The social impact of the crime, for example, where it relates to offences against women, dacoity, kidnapping, misappropriation of public money, treason and other offences involving moral turpitude or moral delinquency, which have great impact on social order and public interest, cannot be lost sight of and per se require exemplary treatment,” it had said.
“Any liberal attitude by imposing meagre sentences or taking too sympathetic a view merely on account of lapse of time in respect of such offences will be result-wise counter-productive in the long run and against societal interest which needs to be cared for and strengthened by a string of deterrence in-built in the sentencing system,” the Bench had warned.
No one will seek death penalty for a drunk driver who kills on the road. But, with drunk driving deaths mounting worldwide, there is an increasing concern to prevent drunk drivers from taking to the wheels. Taking the lead, Sweden has made installation of breath alcohol ignition interlock device (Baiid) mandatory in all new lorries and buses by 2010 and in all new private cars by 2012.
Baiid is a sophisticated system that tests for blood alcohol content (BAC) of a driver and immobilises the vehicle’s ignition system if it finds BACexceeding the permissible level pre-programmed into it. Experts vouch that modern safeguards make Baiid extremely difficult to circumvent.
To arrest the rising number of drunk driving deaths in India, which comes to public focus once in a while through high-profile cases, the legislature needs to act fast — both in terms of providing for “appropriate punishment” as well as technological safeguards under the Motor Vehicles Act.