Drunken Driving: Menace on the road

By Nishant Singh Rawat 19 Minutes Read


Alcohol plays an important role in every sector whether being economy or personal lives. The government order of opening booze shops during the pandemic shows how much our political economy as well as society is dependent upon liquor. From ancient times, it has been an integral part of our society. But we cannot accept the devil, even if he is good.

India has developed a vast infrastructure in the last two decades. It has around 5,897,671 km of road in 2019 which is nearly double of what was present at the start of this millennium. But what has progressed faster than this is the death rate in road accidents in India. In 2001, 80,888 people lost their lives in road accidents whereas, in 2018, this figure has reached 1,51,417. It is interesting to note that the death rate has doubled but there is only a slight increment in road accident incidents (from 4,05,637 in 2001 to 4,67,044 in 2018).[2] India tops the chart according to WHO’s Global Report on Road Safety, 2018. From 2008 to 2018, 80,634 people have lost their lives due to drunken driving (this is reported data from the site of Ministry of Road Transport & Highway, the actual figures are not available). Despite such a rampant situation, we keep a blind eye towards this until some high-profile cases such as Salman Khan or Nanda crop up.

Motor Vehicles Act, 1988

The primary law that tackles the cases of drunken driving is the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. It does not define what is drunken driving but provides a criterion for whom to be considered as driving under the influence of alcohol. According to Sec 185 of Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, the alcohol level in blood should not exceed 30 mg/ 100 ml or 0.03 g/dl (which is the international standard set by WHO). The question as to the limit is held valid by Madras High Court[3] where they observed that researchers have proved that lower Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) i.e. between 0- 0.02 g/dl can lead to reduction between 4% to 24% of accidents.

Sec 185 of Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 talks about the usage of drugs also and made that punishable if they are used to such extent that makes the person incapable of exercising control over the vehicle. Recent amendment in 2019, broaden the scope of Sec 185. Earlier, test by breath analyzer was only provided but now the words “or in any other test including a laboratory test”[4] have been added. With this advancement, the evidentiary value of the laboratory tests [5] has been established.

A police officer in proper uniform is empowered under Sec 202 of Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 to arrest any person without a warrant if a person commits an offence under Sec 185 in his presence. However, the medical test of the person is to be done in accordance with Sec 203 or 204 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988.

The most significant step taken in the recent amendment of 2019 was to enhance the punishment for drunken driving. Now the punishment is imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or fine of ten thousand rupees or both for the first offence; and for a second or subsequent offence, imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or fine of fifteen thousand rupees, or both. Earlier the fine was two thousand and three thousand rupees for first and second offence respectively.

In addition to above said punishment, the license of the offender could be revoked or he could be disqualified for holding a driving license according to Sec 19(1)(f) of Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 read with Rule 21(16) of The Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989.

These provisions work to punish the offender for drunken driving but what if the rights of other persons are violated due to their drunken driving? Then, in that case, these punishments and provisions would not have any deterrent effect on the masses.

Relevance of IPC, 1860 provisions

In the matters of drunken driving where the third party is injured or death is caused, a few provisions of IPC, 1860 are involved which are Sec 279, 304A, 337, 338. The common thing behind these all provisions is the negligence part. For a long time, drunk driving is taken under negligence on the part of the driver. The maximum punishment under these provisions is for two years, which proves insufficient to provide justice to the victim.

The intention part is out of the scene but the knowledge part was elaborately discussed by the apex court in Alister Anthony Pareira v. State of Maharashtra[6]. In this case, the court was dealing with the applicability of Sec 304 Part II and Sec 338 of IPC on the same offence where eight people were injured and seven died. The standing counsel for the appellant, Mr. U.U. Lalit argued that these two provisions are mutually destructible and could not co-exist. The court observed that :

“a person may be guilty not only of an act but also of the result. There is a presumption that a man knows the nature and likely consequences of his acts. An act does not become an involuntary act simply because its consequences were unforeseen. The cases of negligence or of rashness or dangerous driving do not eliminate the act being voluntary.

So, court establishes the application of both provisions Sec 304 Part II and Sec 338 of IPC, 1860 simultaneously. Relying on such contentions, it would not be wrong to attach the liability of the offender under Sec 304 Part II involving the knowledge on the part of the offender.

In Ravji @ Ram Chandra v. State of Rajasthan[7], court discussed the proportionality of sentencing and observed that,

“The court must not only keep in view the rights of the criminal but also the rights of the victim of the crime and the society at large while considering the imposition of appropriate punishment. The punishment to be awarded for a crime must not be irrelevant but it should confirm to and be consistent with the atrocity and brutality with which the crime has been penetrated, the enormity of the crime warranting public abhorrence, and it should respond to the society’s cry for justice against the criminal.

The apex court has tried to resolve the lacunas in the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 by interpreting it in a positive sense and maintaining the balance of justice in the society. The Rajya Sabha committee in 2017[8] has also recommended the enhancement of punishment to seven years in case of death in accident by drunken driver with a relevant amendment in IPC. But this was not included in the 2019 amendments.

Despite this, Judicial system is on its track to provide equitable justifications to the provisions as recently on 4 Oct, 2019 in State of Andhra Pradesh v. Ramchandra Rabidas @ Ratan Radidas & Anr.[9], the Supreme court held that Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 does not bar prosecuting offenders under IPC, 1860.

Compensation to the victim

Our criminal justice has deviated from accused centric to victim centric in the last few years. The insertion of Sec 357A and 357B in 2009 and 2013 respectively paved the way for this. In the matters of drunken driving cases it has been observed by the court that from 2006- 2014 fine of 45.55 has been collected[10]. But in reference to compensation allotted to the deceased, no significant figures could be estimated.

In Hari Singh v. Sukhbir Singh & Ors.[11], the court held that Sec 357(3) Cr.P.C. is a constructive approach to crime. The same could be said in reference to the words “make an award determining the amount of compensation which appears to it to be just“, used in Sec 168 of Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 relating to compensation given by the Claims tribunal. The word “just” means appropriate which depends upon the condition of the victim and persons dependent upon him or her. So, compensation could take any form depending upon the nature of the crime. This same thing was observed by the apex court in Nagappa v. Gurudayal Singh[12], where the court award more compensation than the amount claimed.

Fixed standards could not be followed in matters of compensation and various factors like attendant charges, loss of earning capacity, pain and suffering, transportation charges, future medical expenses, loss of amenities, extra nourishment have to be considered as done by the Madras high court in Manikandan v. P. Palani[13]. The court considering the abovesaid factors enhanced the compensation from Rs.4,37,920/- to Rs.67,35,000/- along with interest at the rate of 7.5% per annum.

However, with the 2019 amendments, certain changes have been made in the liability of insurance companies. In Sec 149(2)(a)(ii), words “driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs as laid down in section 185” has been inserted which diminishes the liability of the insurance companies to pay compensation if driver is drunk. This could create problem in matters when driver is not economically sustained to compensate the victim. But recently in 2019, a Motor Accident Claims Tribunal has deduced that an insurance company cannot absolve its responsibility of paying insurance if the driver of the offending vehicle is drunk. Tribunal held that the insurer has failed to prove the issue that the offending vehicle owner has committed breach of terms and conditions of insurance policy.

Progressive Approach

It can not be denied that legislature and judiciary are taking positive steps towards minimizing the accidents due to drunken driving but without proper enforcement, no good results could be achieved. According to the report of Community against drunken driving (CADD), the prosecution rate is less than 7% in cases of drunken driving. It was also observed by the court in K. Shanmugam v. Krishnamurthy & Ors., that proper security checkpoints and random breath- testing could reduce drunken drive accidents by 20%.

Alcohol detecting devices in vehicles could be used for not allowing drivers to drive without proper breath- test. On the lines of this demand for Reduced Impaired Driving for Everyone (RIDE) Act has been raised in the US. This would make compulsory the installation of alcohol deducting devices in vehicles.

Justice N. Kirubakaran and Justice Abdul Quddhose of Madras High Court taking responsibility to give appropriate guidelines held that

“When thousands of fellow citizens are being killed due to drunken driving, this Court cannot remain a silent spectator with folded hands and this Court has to travel beyond its jurisdiction to pass novel, unconventional and remedial directions as a Constitutional Court to protect fundamental rights of citizens in the interest of the society. Inspite of grim situation, if this Court shirks its responsibilities, it would be injustice done to the society by this Constitutional Court”

and directed central as well as state authorities to adhere to certain guidelines for the safety of the people, which are as follows:[14]

  • Police authorities shall arrest the drunken drivers under Section 202 of the Motor Vehicles Act and subject the drivers for Breathalyser Test under Section 203 of the Motor Vehicles Act for alcohol detection as per Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act.
  • A sufficient number of Breathalysers should be made available to the police.
  • Police authorities shall invoke Section 279 of the IPC for the offence of drunken driving in addition to Section 185 of Motor Vehicles Act.
  • State transport authorities shall revoke the licence under Section 19(1)(f) of the Motor Vehicles Act read with Rule 21(16) of the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989 for drunken driving.
  • Special committed units/wings to check drunken driving are to be constituted.
  • The Central Government shall consider to direct the automobile manufacturers to install “Alcohol Sensing Ignition Interlocking Devices“.
  • Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act along with other IPC offences shall be invoked in cases of accidents involving drunken driving.


The drunken driving not only endangers the lives of drunken drivers themselves but also threatens the safety and security of innocent pedestrians and other riders and travelers of other vehicles. So, harsh penalties and precedents must be established to control this menace. Several steps are being taken to minimize drunken driving cases. An astonishing improvement was seen in Bihar after liquor ban as the number of deaths due to drunk driving reduced to 326 in 2016, 0 in 2017, and 3 in 2018, which were earlier 890 in 2014 and 867 in 2015. Last 2- 3 years have seen a drop in drunken driving deaths due to the efforts of the system.

Nevertheless, numerous factors are yet to be covered like the duty of the citizens. Unless we understand our responsibility as an aware citizen, no significant change could be observed. Not always, some extreme incident (like Alister Anthony Pareira case) or some famous personality involvement (like Salman Khan case) is required to attract our attraction towards ill effects of drink and drive.

Kindly Don’t drink & drive.

[1] Justice N.Kirubakaran in Manikandan v. P. Palani & Ors. CMA No. 470 of 2018 (Madras High Court).
[2] The data is based upon the annual report of Ministry of Road Transport & Highway.
[3] K. Shanmugam v. Krishnamurthy & Ors. CMA No. 1842 of 2006.
[4] The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019 (No. 32 of 2019).
[5] The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, s. 204.
[6] Cr. Appeal No. 1318- 1320 of 2007.
[7] (1996) 2 SCC 175.
[8] Report of the select committee on Motor vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2017 (Presented on 22 Dec, 2017).
[9] Cr. Appeal No. 906 of 2010.
[10] K. Shanmugam v. Krishnamurthy & Ors. CMA No. 1842 of 2006.
[11] (1988) 4 SCC 551.
[12] (2003) 2 SCC 274.
[13] CMA No. 470 of 2018.
[14] Supra note 1.

Nishant Singh Rawat

Contributing Editor @LegalWires A Research Scholar at the University of Delhi also graduated from the University of Delhi and Himachal Pradesh National Law University with specialization in criminal law. He is an egalitarian and strong supporter of human rights. He is a keen traveller and mountaineer. Whatever challenges the societal structure and norms, attracts his attention.

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