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Indians flout traffic rules because ‘everyone does it’. Road safety should be a public good

According to a report published at the Indian Public Policy Review, the Motor Vehicles Act amendment might just be 'ink on paper'.

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Flouting rules on the road is a commonly-observed behaviour that may not warrant much discussion – be it skipping the red traffic signal or riding motorcycles on the footpath. However, when the frequency of such violations rises, it is worth examining whether these violations become the social norm. In our recent paper published in the Indian Public Policy Review, we study the case of traffic violations on Indian roads by adapting existing theoretical frameworks of social norms and their interaction with laws.

Road traffic violations and road safety in India

One of the major repercussions of flouting traffic rules is that it results in jeopardising the safety of road users. Data from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MORTH) indicates that a large proportion of fatal road mishaps stems from over-speeding (66.5 per cent), alcohol-intake, and distracted driving. How does this correspond with increasing motorisation in India? The number of road-related deaths per 1000 vehicles has nearly halved since 2005. This decline can be ascribed to new road legislation, changes in road infrastructure and design, law enforcement, and lower average speeds due to increased motorisation and congestion.

When it comes to law enforcement, traffic police only make up three per cent of the total police force as per data from the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD). As of 2020, there was one traffic police personnel per 17,736 persons and 2,920 vehicles in India, marginally lower than Asian counterparts such as Indonesia and China as well as other countries such as Brazil and Russia. It is perhaps no surprise then that an additional deterrent was enacted through the Motor Vehicles Act (2017) in the form of increased penalties on road traffic violations. For example, the penalty for drunk driving has been increased from ₹2,000 to ₹10,000, whereas speeding is now penalised with a fine of ₹5,000.


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Norms around behaviour on roads

Existing research that looks at the behaviour of road users suggests a range of factors that could determine why laws are flouted regularly. The theory of planned behaviour, for instance, suggests that behavioural intentions are critical in explaining road traffic violation behaviour. Other research building on this work suggests that what is perceived to be ‘acceptable’ behaviour on the roads also matters for these intentions. These are otherwise known as social norms.

University of Pennsylvania-based philosopher Cristina Bichhieri provides an authoritative definition of social norms that is worth looking at in our context. Bichhieri defined social norms based on empirical and normative expectations, which implies that to create a social norm, it is necessary to induce the right kind of expectations of behaviour (within a specific group of individuals — in our case, road users).

How do these norms interact with existing laws and regulations? Cornell economist and former Chief Economic Advisor Kaushik Basu argues in his book, Republic of Beliefs, that laws (particularly new laws such as the Motor Vehicles Act amendment) are just “ink on paper” and can bring about a change in people’s behaviour only in as much as they can change their beliefs about what other people may or may not do. Thus, people rely on so-called “focal points,” i.e., those choices that enable people to guess what others, with a common cultural background as theirs, are likely to do.


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A model of traffic violations

The model is created on the premise that, for any social norm, an individual in a population is aware of the social norm in play and bases her behaviour upon different expectations. The empirical expectations case lays out an example and a corresponding behavioural rule: in a city, there could be a reasonable proportion of all road users who prefer riding vehicles without wearing helmets. So, an individual prefers not to wear a helmet while riding because of the behavioural rule that says helmets are not worn by all motorists while riding.

Next, normative expectations also elaborate on a hypothetical example and a behavioural rule to bring out the essence of this social norm: in a city, if the road user notices a sufficiently large group of people not wearing helmets while riding their two-wheelers, she believes that many people follow the behavioural rule of not wearing helmets. She also believes that many people expect her to conform to this behavioural rule and hence, she prefers not to wear a helmet as well.

What if there are economic (monetary) or social (reputation) sanctions imposed for violations of such norms? In the case of normative expectations with sanctions, an individual believes that a large subset of the population in a city expects the individual to conform to the behavioural rule in a situation and non-adherence may lead to sanctioning her unlawful behaviour. In a city, a typical individual believes that a large group of drivers expects and prefers her to conform with speeding and impose sanctions if she is not in conformity with driving at a ‘regular’ speed, and therefore she also ignores the speed limit when using these roads.

Laws and social norms

How do these norms interact with laws? This framework draws on work by Basu as well as economists Daron Acemoglu and Matthew Jackson: a road user must choose a behaviour (or an action) for particular types of strategic interactions with other road users. One such interaction could be using the road populated by specific types of road users (for instance, a congested urban road). Road rules compliance enforced by hefty penalties will lead to full compliance, given that other road users can act as whistle-blowers and expose rule offenders.

Another case considered is to treat road safety as a public good where safety comes with a cost to road users and they will try to match the behaviour of other road users by adopting a behaviour that is mediated by the expectations of others’ behaviour. Without a whistle-blowing mechanism, this could result in a low-level equilibrium where all road users expect a low level of road safety, and therefore the social norm conflicts with existing law.

The reasons for rule flouting in developing nations is that citizens of these countries do not have a strong foundational belief that laws should be followed, and they think that others in their societies harbour similar beliefs. The psychological idea of pluralistic ignorance is also at play here, where people, whose private preferences are at odds with the social norms, wrongly believe that the majority of the people have private preferences to maintain the status quo (regardless of whether the status quo is good or bad in social terms).

When laying out social norms-based interventions to prevent traffic rules violations, misperceptions are widespread due to a collision between personal and collective benefits. As a result, challenging misperceptions necessitates the introduction of factual beliefs that act to shift the focal point. Social norms strategies, therefore, try to facilitate behaviour change through the identification of the gaps in perception between actual and estimated behaviours.


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A roadmap for policy

An intervention with its basis on social norms can begin by sourcing data on how many people engage in a certain rule-violating behaviour, then retrieve data on perceptions and prevalence of the offence among the offenders and finally correct any misperceptions about norm violations through an informational intervention.

To facilitate such factual interventions, ride-hailing services like Ola and Uber can initiate awareness campaigns since they serve dual advantages for public and private interests. Another spatial point of intervention may be at the valet services of pubs and bars. Providing information to correct misperceptions of social norms and their violations before alcohol consumption may alter subsequent decisions about impaired driving, albeit not immediately, but with repeated reminders. Giving feedback to road users is another intervention tried and tested around the world.

Associated penalties and vigilant law enforcement must supplement these targeted interventions since, on their own, they might not have the intended effects. To inform policy in the Indian scenario, one can look to the evolution of norms in other nations. Community-based interventions have yielded significant benefits in shifting norms in various contexts in developing nations like Mali, Nigeria and Nepal. However, in putting forth interventions, one must be careful to not discount the administrative and financial constraints of India to implement such changes in law.

The use of behavioural science units embedded within the local (or state) government that plan, design and implement interventions by enlisting the traffic police departments’ assistance could prove beneficial in this regard as evidenced by places like Singapore and Amsterdam.

Anirudh Tagat and Akshaya Balaji are with the Department of Economics at Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai.

This article is based on research originally published in the Indian Public Policy Review, co-authored with Nikhil George, Nidhi Gupta, and Hansika Kapoor. The full paper can be found here.

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