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This article is written by Shivani Panda from Amity Law School, Delhi. Here she discusses the violation of road safety by the drivers using cellphones in reference to Avidit Noliyal case. 

Introduction

Mobile phones have become a public utility, and have improved the social and commercial communication between people. Previously there used to be static telephones, but with pacing technology, wireless cell phones replaced them. They were also used to place calls and gradually were improvised to use it for texting, sending emails, using social media, etc. However, cell phones have many negative impacts attached to it, one of which is using mobiles while driving. A recent research conducted by the World Health Organisation unearthed that there is a 400% higher accident chance if a person is using a mobile phone while driving. The author in this paper implores the impact of the use of mobile phones while driving a vehicle, and the steps taken by India to curb it. 

Impact

Driver distraction created by talking or text messaging or using a cell phone while driving is one of the prime reasons for motor vehicle accidents all over the world. It happens when a driver stops focusing on the road and diverts his attention towards something else. These distractions affect the ability of the drivers to intercept their environment that may lead to delay in response, which in turn might result in road accidents. Such distractions, classified into two different categories, are mentioned below: 

  1. Physical Distraction: This includes removing the hand from the steering wheel or gear to operate the cellphone, as well as a visual distraction by taking the eyes off from the road to use the phone. 
  2. Cognitive Distraction: Cognitive or mental obstruction occurs when a person multi-tasks or performs it concurrently. In this case, when drivers use mobile phones while driving, their attention is divided between operating the phone and maintaining the conversation and manoeuvring the vehicle with changing road and traffic conditions. Using a cell phone induces a form of inattention blindness, where drivers fail to notice information directly in their line of sight.

Other problems involve auditory distraction, that is listening to music, or talking on hands-free phones. Many studies have concluded that there is no difference in reduced reaction time between hand-held and hands-free use. Thus, the distraction comes mainly from the lack of attention and concentration on the driving task and not having control over the vehicle. The effects of obstruction on drivers can vary, depending on timing, intensity, duration, frequency, and the hangover effect. The hang-over effect can be understood as the mental distraction that remains once a task has completed. 

According to the National Safety Council (NSC) of the U.S., it was estimated that at least 28% of all traffic crashes or at least 1.6 million crashes each year involve drivers using cell phones. Further, it was revealed in a report released by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, Government of India, that almost 1.5 lakh people lost their lives in road accidents in 2018 in India, which translates to 17 deaths every hour due to an accident, accounting for 10% of global accidents. It shows that “driver fault” is the single most important factor that accounted for 81% of total accidents. 

Countermeasures to reduce smartphone use while driving

Several countermeasures have been taken to reduce the use of cellphones by drivers. Some of those techniques are elaborated below: 

  • Legislation and enforcement

A study by WHO suggests that the legislation enacted by the Parliament in almost any country has not been sufficient in itself to have an impact on the use of mobile phones by drivers. However, relevant steps have been taken in many countries to curb the usage of phones while driving. In many countries fines for this violation have been increased considerably. Sweden, which has the world’s safest roads, had no law banning mobile phones until 2017, is now catching up with new regulations. In India, the judiciary and legislative have worked together to keep a check on the use of phones while driving. It has been extensively discussed by the author in this section.

  • Legislation

The Motor Vehicles Act (hereinafter MV Act) was enacted in 1988, lays down rules and regulations on all aspects of road transport and details regarding licensing of drivers/conductors, registration of motor vehicles, traffic regulation, insurances, and penalties. It further empowers the Central Government to decide penalties of offences that are not given under this Act. Further, the Act makes it compulsory for a driver to have a valid driving license, and to register its vehicle. 

In the year 1989, under the MV Act, ‘Rules of the Road Regulation’, were established. Violating these rules is a serious offence under any city-specific traffic police rules as well as the MV Act. Recently, there was an amendment to the MV Act which made these rules more stringent. Earlier, the fine for using cell phones was Rs.100 to Rs.300, as under Section 177 of the Act. However, with the increase in the cases of the drivers using phones, the penalty hiked to Rs. 1000, which was done under Section 184 of the MV Act. However, now after the 2019 amendment, it has been increased to Rs. 5000. Other rules have also become stricter, like the penalty for driving on the wrong side of the road, or without a driving license. Further, the punishment for driving a vehicle by juvenile has also become stricter.

  • Judiciary 

High Courts have stepped in many instances to enforce the rules given under the MV Act and its rules. The High Courts in the following cases have laid down strict penalty for using phone while driving: 

  • Rajasthan High Court

The Jodhpur Bench of Rajasthan High Court in the case of Mahendra Lodha v. CS. Ranjan & Ors. on April 27, 2018, issued new directions to the Additional Commissioner of Police (ACP) and the State Government (hereinafter SG) of Jodhpur to cancel the driving license of people who are found using mobile phones while driving. It laid down the following procedure regarding the cancellation of licenses: 

  1. The SG and the ACP must ensure that no driver is using a cell phone while driving a motor vehicle. 
  2. If they are found doing so, then after obtaining photographs and other credentials of those infringing the law, it has to be forwarded to the R.T.O. for cancellation of the driving license. 
  3. The person infringing the law has to be given an opportunity of fair hearing before the cancellation of the license, in front of the R.T.O. and the authorities of the Transport Department. 
  • Uttarakhand High Court

Following the step of Rajasthan High Court, Uttarakhand HC in the case of Avidit Noliyal v. State of Uttarakhand authorized the cancellation of licenses of drivers found using cell phones while driving. A petition was filed by Advocate Avidit Noliyal in the High Court of Uttarakhand to ensure strict implementation of Sections 128 and 129 of the MV Act by the State Authorities. The division bench laid down following rules in the Order dated June 18, 2018: 

  1. Helmet with an ISI mark made compulsory, as given under Section 129 of the Act. The non-compliance of the rule can be pointed out by any citizen throughout the State, through the Registrar General of the High Court. 
  2. There will be a ban on carrying iron sheets, rods, steel, and plastic pipes, beyond the vertical or horizontal length of the transport vehicle. 
  3. The SG is further directed to issue necessary instructions to cancel the licenses of those persons, who are found using cellphones while driving. Till the SG comes out with the necessary amendment/notification, a fine of Rs. 5000/- shall be charged from every violator using the cellphone while driving.
  4. Lastly, SG is also directed to ensure that no minors are issued any driving licenses and they are not permitted to drive the vehicles. The Principals/Head of the Institution of all the Educational Institutions shall make the students aware of the directions issued hereinabove and cooperate for due implementation of these directions in the larger public interest.
  • Legal access to call logs and data 

As a part of enforcement countermeasures, access to cell phone data and call logs in case of serious accidents should be mandated. Mobile network providers auto provide the authorities with call logs and data history. Moreover, a black box is an important part of the airbag system deployed in the cars, which collects data, such as, speed, gear and steering wheel position, braking action, engine RPM, throttle position in percentage, etc. The companies should be legally mandated to provide such information to the authorities investigating the case. 

  • Technology

Driver distraction caused by technology is a serious problem, but if the technology is a part of the problem, it can be a part of the solution as well. The approach of reducing distractions has been mainly through laws and enforcement supported by campaigns but few organizations and researchers have developed the technology to make the system more concrete. An initiative was taken in India in 2012 to develop advanced technology. A small-size hardware system and Cell Phone Accident Preventer (CAP) mobile application, along with a low range of cell phone jammer used to detect the driver’s use of the mobile, was devised. The passenger in the vehicle can block the mobile communication only in the driver’s seating area, and provide an option for the driver to attend an emergency call if he stops a vehicle at a safe space. 

Other countries have also developed similar technology, like, installing a device in the automobile that may allow a hands-free call when driving on a highway outside the city but prohibit a call in bottlenecks and hectic traffic. Apart from distraction-specific technologies, several driver assistance technologies also have the potential to reduce the negative impact of driver distraction.

  • Publicity and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Since it is difficult to remove the causes of distraction, and enforcing the legislation related to the sources of obstruction, campaigns and publicity to promote the awareness of risk and change behaviour is a necessary part of the countermeasures to reduce the use of smartphones. There are various other stakeholders besides the government and enforcement agencies, who can be vested with the responsibility to promote change among drivers. These involve car company manufacturers, insurance companies, mobile network operators, etc, who can work towards it for liability and CSR reasons. Companies such as Tata Steel have prohibited the use of mobile phones, CB radios, hands-free devices, and other devices leading to distractions by the staff while driving on the company’s sites. Moreover, few mobile network operators discourage their clients from calling while driving in their publicity campaigns. Vodafone has developed local apps with road safety NGOs in India and Egypt. Further, road safety and traffic education should be a part of the curriculum in schools and colleges. 

  • Training

As a part of driver training before issuing a driver’s licence, special driver training programs should be made to educate them about strategies to recognise and driver distraction. Glancing away from the road for more than 2-3 seconds can be destructive. In Europe, a PC-based training programme, ‘Forward Concentration and Attention Learning’ (FOCAL), was developed to minimize the duration of the glances by the drivers away from the road to under 2 seconds. This training programme uses error learning as a key component and takes about one hour to complete. 

Conclusion

The use of smartphones while driving is a huge road safety nightmare, which is difficult to remove without a strategic approach. Managing the risks and benefits of technologies that are used while driving is critical. It is important for governments, in particular, to be proactive now, using the current state of knowledge, and be guided by lessons learned from other road safety intervention areas. It should keep in mind the technologies developed by the non-state agencies to contain this problem. Failure to act now could not only make it more difficult to address the issue at a later date but would also lead to many more preventable traffic injuries and deaths on roads around the world.

References


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