November 23, 2021

Traffic Woes and Recovery Blues!

How many of us have (or know others with) unpaid traffic fines? Recovery of traffic fines has become a serious concern for traffic authorities. This doesn’t just weigh down on their already limited capacity, it also puts financial pressure on already budget-constrained Urban Local Bodies. Consider the city of Pune where there has been non-payment of fines in 42%, 59% and 73% of traffic cases in 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively. This amounts to 44%, 64% and 80% of the total dues. In Mumbai, challans worth ₹1.2 billion were left unpaid in 2020, and ₹1 billion in 2019. Our recommendations for improving fine recovery include leveraging public-private partnerships and creating linkages with other public services. 


Proportion of paid and unpaid traffic fines in Pune (₹ millions)

Source: Shinde 2020, Hindustan Times


The simple rationale behind traffic penalties is deterrence against traffic rules violation. Two 18th century philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria highlight three factors that enable deterrence—certainty (likelihood), celerity (swiftness), and severity (amount). Although these three aspects of deterrence play into each other, research indicates that improving the certain and swift imposition of penalties serve as a better deterrent compared to increasing the severity of penalties and it’s the perceived certainty of punishment that deters unlawful behaviour. Therefore, state capacity for ensuring certainty and celerity of punishment merits attention. In India, while the severity of fines is governed under the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019, the responsibility for ensuring certainty and celerity of fine imposition and collection is undertaken by the traffic police. 


The traffic police is a separate unit in the civil police, responsible for traffic law regulation and management. They find themselves embroiled in a multitude of duties—easing traffic congestion, fixing speed limits, traffic education, controlling traffic at junctions, ensuring post-crash care for accident victims, and traffic fine enforcement. Realistically, traffic management requires the active involvement of multiple stakeholders—the transport department, road authorities, traffic police, health officials and citizens—each with a clearly defined set of responsibilities (Institute of Road Traffic Education). Streamlining, defining, and narrowing down the role of the traffic police will help improve their capacity which is currently stretched due to the non-specification of their exact role.  


Another aspect inhibiting traffic police’s enforcement capacity is the lack of good quality data to identify and track habitual offenders and persons with outstanding traffic fines. While efforts have been  directed towards ensuring severity of fine imposition, certainty and celerity of actual fine collection still remains largely amiss. For instance, incorrect phone numbers or addresses of traffic violators make it difficult to identify habitual offenders or those who delay fine payments. Consequently, cities like Thane, Pune and Mumbai, are reverting to traditional ways of collecting spot fines in cash


So where does this leave the traffic police in ensuring certainty and celerity of fine collection? Cities like Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Bangalore have constituted teams of traffic police for door-to-door collection of fines from offenders. Bengaluru Police collected fines to the tune of ₹180 million in this manner in October 2020. While this strategy improves fine recovery, this may not be the most efficient use of a traffic police personnel’s time given their core duty and the breadth of responsibilities. 


One solution to ensure certainty without additional pressures on the traffic police could be setting up a separate department for recovery of fines or to leverage public-private partnerships. Developed countries like Australia, Canada and the US have used the latter approach. In India, the Kerala Government was experimenting with outsourcing traffic monitoring and fine collection; however, the usual concerns of nepotism in procurement arose. Another approach taken to “nudge” people is incorporating behavioural science-driven design in collection. An idea that has proven effective include sending personalised letters and texts with reminders and careful messaging. For example, an experiment in Singapore involved sending notices that are simple, containing an easy way to pay and a call to action specifying the consequences. Results showed that the redesigned notice increased payments significantly. Another experiment in the US involved sending two reminder letters to traffic violators. If they fail to pay their outstanding traffic fines, a third letter was sent informing them that their traffic debt will be referred to a third-party collection agency. Issuing the third letter was found to increase payments from 8.1% to 18.6%. Efforts of this nature show the authority’s commitment to follow up with violators and improve the certainty of fine collection. 


Another solution that has been implemented internationally (Japan, Singapore, Dubai, Canada, US) and even domestically (Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi) is creating linkages between traffic police and other public services like vehicle insurance, immigration, finance, and transport departments. For example in Chennai, the issuance of vehicle fitness certificates is linked to traffic fine records. Failure to pay a fine is also added to the registration certificate of the vehicle which is then flagged during insurance renewal and car sale. These solutions not only impact perceived severity but also ensure certainty of fine collection through check-points with different authorities. In fact, the officials of the Greater Chennai Corporation are planning to automate traffic fine collection using FASTag since an estimated 90% of the vehicles have FASTag accounts.

In conclusion, an effective traffic enforcement system is a crucial input for furthering respect for the rule of law among citizens. It is key for creating safer neighbourhoods, according to the broken windows theory which suggests that the containment of petty crimes prevents the manifestation of bigger crimes. While steps have been taken to improve the severity of traffic fine imposition, it is the certainty and celerity of fine collection that needs to be focussed upon.

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