When does drunken driving become a felony rather than a case of misdemeanour? When driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) leads to loss of life. With social drinking on the rise in India, and our roads fast turning into killer streets, understanding this difference in the magnitude of offence becomes an issue of particular importance. The accident in Mumbai on Sunday morning, when an allegedly intoxicated youngster ran over, and killed, seven pedestrians, is the latest example of careless behaviour leading to tragic consequence.
In many countries, drunken driving is one of the most serious traffic offences. In India, legal experts are divided over the exact charge DUI should attract. The confusion stems from the fact that the IPC does not have a clear clause dealing exclusively with DUI. What also fails to deter such drivers is the weakness of the Motor Vehicles Act — the maximum sentence drunken driving invites is six months’ imprisonment and a fine of Rs 2,000; in many cases, the jail term is waived. Often, in road accidents leading to death, defence lawyers manage to get their clients off from the serious charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code. This carries a sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. The prosecution is then left trying to make stick the lesser charge of causing death by a rash and negligent act under Section 304 (A), which carries a jail term of a maximum of two years. The difference arises from the fact that in the former charge, the accused is believed to have prior knowledge that his act may cause death.
It is commonly known that alcohol impairs a person’s judgment. A crash that takes place while a person is DUI cannot be classed as a simple accident. There is an element of culpability not just of the driver, but of the person who served him liquor that needs to be recognised and clearly established. At the same time, there is need for much more social awareness to educate people about the consequences of driving under influence, or allowing a friend or a client to do so. Both law and social sanction are needed if this dangerous problem has to be curbed.