The tragic death of Tamil Nadu Minister N. Mariyam Pichai in an accident on a National Highway in the State should serve as a reminder that safety on our roads needs to be given the highest priority by governments as well as the public at an all-India level. The latest data for fatal accidents presented to Parliament by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways are for 2008, and they are frightening. A staggering 1,19,860 people perished in mishaps that year. The Law Commission of India has pointed out that the national and state highways account for nearly half of all road accidents. In spite of the shocking levels of death and disability, the central government has only been inching forward with reform. It is nothing short of a scandal that in a country witnessing 10 per cent annual growth in vehicles, and boasting a network of 3.3 million km of roads, the Bill for creation of a statutory National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board has been meandering through Parliament. Such an agency is vital to set standards for road design, inspect existing roads, and investigate accidents scientifically. If the death toll is to be brought down, its formation cannot be delayed any longer.
That India's Motor Vehicles Act lags far behind the needs of a fast-motorising society is painfully evident from its road safety record. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture recognised this and suggested several modifications in the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2007 to strengthen enforcement and reduce the trauma of making a compensation claim. The proposed amendments are important and need to be brought in quickly — but the stark reality is that even the existing law is not uniformly implemented by the police. It will take a 'zero tolerance' policy towards the most common transgressions — dangerous and reckless driving; disregard for traffic rules; jumping red lights; driving under the influence of liquor; failing to use seatbelts; and driving without a helmet — to bring about a visible change. It is also true that disregard for labour welfare leads to accidents. Many professional drivers are forced to work longer hours than desirable from a safety standpoint. This can result in their being asleep at the wheel, with horrific consequences for passengers and for themselves. On the other hand, some drivers cause accidents through sheer recklessness. The response to this has to be the unsparing enforcement of rules. In the case of errant drivers, the Supreme Court has endorsed a deterrent approach in Dalbir Singh Vs. State of Haryana. Enforcement, good engineering, and education are the need of the hour.
Courts must bear in mind that when any plea is made based on S. 4 of the PO Act for application to a convicted person under S. 304-A IPC, that road accidents have proliferated to alarming extent and the toll is galloping up day-by-day in India, and that no solution is in sight nor suggested by any quarters to bring them down. Bearing in mind the galloping trend in road accidents in India and the devastating consequences visiting the victims and their families, criminal courts cannot treat the nature of the offence under Section 304-A IPC as attracting the benevolent provisions of Section 4 of the PO Act.
While considering the quantum of sentence, to be imposed for the offence of causing death by rash or negligent driving of automobiles, one of the prime considerations should be deterrence. A rash and negligent driver must always keep in his mind the fear psyche that if he is convicted of the offence for causing death of a human being due to his callous driving of vehicle he cannot escape from jail sentence. This is the role which the courts can play, particularly at the level of trial courts, for lessening the high rate of motor accidents due to callous driving of automobiles.
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA
CASE No. Appeal (Crl.) 426 of 2000, dated 04th May 2000
Equivalent Citations: AIR 2000 SC 1677, 2000 (3) SCR 1000, 2000 (4) SCALE 323, 2000 (5) JT 463, II (2000) ACC 65, 2000 ACJ 1436, 2000 (2) ALD Cri 1
BENCH: K.T. THOMAS & DORAISWAMY RAJU
K.T. Thomas, J.
1. Then automobiles have become death traps any leniency shown to drivers who are found guilty of rash driving would be at the risk of further escalation of road accidents. All those who are manning the steering of automobiles, particularly professional drivers, must be kept under constant reminders of their duty to adopt utmost care and also of the consequences befalling them in cases of dereliction. One of the most effective ways of keeping such drivers under mental vigil is to maintain deterrent element in sentencing sphere. Any latitude shown to them in that sphere would tempt them to make driving frivolous and frolic.
2. A man who drove a stage carriage knocked down a cyclist who succumbed to his injuries. The said driver was convicted of the offence relating to rash or negligent driving and he was sentenced to a term of imprisonment. His appeal and revision were dismissed by the Sessions Court and the High Court respectively. He has now come up with the special leave petition. Leave is granted.
3. After hearing learned Counsel for the appellant we did not feel the necessity to wait for the arguments on behalf of the respondent-State. So we did not issue notice to the State.
4. Appellant was driving a bus which belonged to Haryana Roadways. It was on 4.7.1994 at 6.15 P.M. that the cyclist was knocked down in front of the main gate of the Boards of school Education at Bhiwani. The cyclist was just going out of the office of the Board where he was working. The bus, after hitting him down, dragged him for some distance. He was crushed to death. The driver was convicted under Section 279 and Section 304A of the IPC, and was sentenced to imprisonment for three months and one year respectively under the above two counts. He made a two-fold plea in the trial court. One was that he was not the person who drove the vehicle. The other was that the accident happened due to the negligence of the cyclist. Both the pleas were repelled by the trial court and the Sessions Court. On the positive side both the said courts found that the incident happened within the town area whereat offices are situated and hence the need to be greatly circumspect while driving motor vehicles was not adhered to by the appellant and such carelessness resulted in the instantaneous death of a young man who was crushed under the wheels of the vehicle. The revision filed by the appellant before the High Court was dismissed in limine.
5. Learned Counsel pleaded for invocation of the benevolent provision of the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958 (for short "the PO Act").
6. As a precedent learned Counsel cited the decision of this Court in Aitha Chander Rao v. State of Andhra Pradesh 1981 Supple. SCC 17. But we may point out that the two Judge Bench, which extended the benefit of Section 4 of the P.O. Act to the accused in that case, made it clear that such a course was resorted to "having regard to the peculiar circumstances of this case". None of the peculiar circumstances has been specified in we decision except that the negligence on the part of the driver in that case was only contributory. The said decision, therefore, cannot be treated as an authority to support the contention that the court should, as a normal rule, invoke the provisions of the PO Act when the accused is convicted of the offence under Section 304A of IPC in causing death of human beings by rash or negligent driving.
7. The conditions for applying Section 4 of the PO Act have been delineated in the commencing portion of the provision in the following words:
When any person is found guilty of having committed an offence not punishable with death or imprisonment for life and the Court by which the person is found guilty is of opinion that, having regard to the circumstances of the case including the nature of the offence and the character of the offender, it is expedient to release him on probation of good conduct....
8. Parliament made it clear that only if the court forms the opinion that it is expedient to release him on probation for his good conduct regard being had to the circumstances of the case. One of the circumstances which cannot be sidelined in forming the said opinion is "the nature of the offence."
9. Thus Parliament has left it to the court to decide when and how the court should form such opinion. It provided sufficient indication that releasing the convicted person on probation of good conduct must appear to the court to be expedient The word "expedient" had been thoughtfully employed by the Parliament in the section so as to mean it as "apt and suitable to the end in view". In Black's Law Dictionary the word expedient is defined as "suitable and appropriate for accomplishment of a specified object" besides the other meaning referred to earlier. In State of Gujarat v. Jamnadas G. Pabri and Ors. a three Judge Bench of this Court has considered the word "expedient". Learned Judges have observed in paragraph 21 thus:
Again, the word 'expedient' used in this provisions, has several shades of meaning. In one dictionary sense, 'expedient' (adj.) means 'apt and suitable to the end in view'; 'practical and efficient'; 'politic'; 'profitable'; 'advisable', 'fit, proper and suitable to the circumstances of the case'. In another shade, it means a device 'characterised by mere utility rather than principle conductive to special advantage rather than to what is universally right' (see Webster's New International Dictionary).
10. It was then held that the court must construe the said word in keeping with the context and object of the provision in its widest amplitude. Here the word "expedient" is used in Section 4 of the PO Act in the context of casting a duty on the court to take into account "the circumstances of the case including the nature of the offence...". This means Section 4 can be resorted to when the court considers the circumstances of the case, particularly the nature of the offence, and the court forms its opinion that it is suitable and appropriate for accomplishing a specified object that the offender can be released on probation of good conduct.
11. Courts must bear in mind that when any plea is made based on Section 4 of the PO Act for application to a convicted person under Section 304A of IPC, that road accidents have proliferated to alarming extent and the toll is galloping up day-by-day in India, and that no solution is in sight not suggested by any quarters to bring them down. When this Court lamented two decades ago that "more people die of road accidents than by most diseases, so much so the Indian highways are among the top killers of the country" the saturation of accidents toll was not even half of what it is today. So V.R. Krishna Iyer, I has suggested in the said decision thus:
Rashness and negligence are relative-concepts, not absolute abstractions. In our current conditions, the law under Section 304A IPC and under the rubric of negligence, must have due regard to the fatal frequency of rash driving of heavy duty vehicles and of speeding menaces.
12. In State of Karnataka v. Krishna alias Raju this Court did not allow a sentence of fine, imposed on a driver who was convicted under Section 304A IPC to remain in force although the High Court too had confirmed the said sentence when an accused was convicted of the offence of driving a bus callously and causing death of a human being. In that case this Court enhanced the sentence to rigorous imprisonment for six months besides imposing a fine.
13. Bearing in mind the galloping trend in road accidents in India and the devastating consequences visiting the victims and their families, criminal courts cannot treat the nature of the offence under Section 304A IPC as attracting the benevolent provisions of Section 4 of the PO Act. While considering the quantum of sentence, to be imposed for the offence of causing death by rash or negligent driving of automobiles, one of the prime considerations should be deterrence. A professional driver pedals the accelerator of the automobile almost throughout his working hours. He must constantly inform himself that he cannot afford to have a single moment of laxity or inattentiveness when his leg is on the pedal of a vehicle in locomotion. He cannot and should not take a chance thinking that a rash driving need not necessarily cause any accident; or even if any accident occurs it need not necessarily result in the death of any human being; or even if such death ensues he might not be convicted of the offence; and lastly that even if he is convicted he would be dealt with leniently by the court. He must always keep in his mind the fear psyche that if he is convicted of the offence for causing death of a human being due to his callous driving of vehicle he cannot escape from jail sentence. This is the role which the courts can play, particularly at the level of trial courts, for lessening the high rate of motor accidents due to callous driving of automobiles.
14. Thus, bestowing our serious consideration on the arguments addressed by the learned Counsel for the appellant we express our inability to lean to the benevolent provision to Section 4 of the PO Act. The appeal is accordingly dismissed.
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