In March 2015, when a 17-year-old boy drove a Maruti Zen car into a tree in South Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, killing his young female friend, it rang alarm bells about underage driving in the city.
In a hurried response, the Delhi Traffic Police conducted a series of special drives against underage drivers. More than five owners were booked on a daily basis in 2015 for allowing minors to take their vehicles out.
Of the 1,916 vehicle owners prosecuted, 82 per cent were two-wheelers and around 300 others were cars that had minors behind the wheels.
Most offenders were booked in areas such as Sarita Vihar, Punjabi Bagh, Mandawali and Khajuri Khas, suggesting economic and social background hardly mattered when it came to underage driving.
It was the first time a dedicated campaign against minor drivers was initiated in Delhi. The three years before that had witnessed just 356, 76 and 121 prosecutions for the same offence.
But with the penalty limited to R 1,000 for the vehicle owner and the possible three-month jail term hardly being awarded, the special drive did little to deter underage drivers.
The drive fizzled out and cops prosecuted barely two owners per day in 2016 for letting minors drive.
“Since the law does not allow minors to be challaned, the offenders do not feel any pinch. Parents or relatives who had to pay the fine did not really mind it either,” said a former traffic police officer.
The only botheration for the minor is that he and his guardian have to attend a counselling session at the traffic police headquarters in North Delhi’s Todapur. “We counsel them about the dangers of untrained driving, the legal implications of it and the consequences of permanent injuries,” says Garima Bhatnagar, Joint CP (Traffic).
But the police are unable to force the offenders to attend the session.
The only hope is in the new Motor Vehicle Act that is yet to come into effect. It will ensure a penalty of at least Rs 10,000 on owners who give vehicles to minors.
Rohit Baluja, head of Institute of Road Traffic Education, says even the existent rules are enough if implemented strictly.
The police encounter many issues while dealing with underage drivers. “Till the offenders are about 15 years, they are easy to identify. But once they grow older, it becomes difficult,” says a traffic officer.
“The minors come up with every excuse to justify their mistake. Their parents ask us to look for ‘real offenders’ instead of ‘targeting’ children,” says another officer.
Only last Sunday, a 17-year-old boy, Atul Arora, was killed by a Mercedes car while he was illegally riding his mother’s scooty. Arora neither had a driving licence nor wore a helmet.
In April last year, 32-year-old Sidharth Sharma was mowed down in Civil Lines by a speeding Mercedes driven by a boy who was to turn 18 in four days. The boy is being tried as an adult but such action is rare.