It is difficult to say which of the following distinctions is more dubious: that India has the largest number of road crashes and deaths, or that three out of four people in the country are hesitant to help injured accident victims on roads due to fear of police harassment, detention at hospitals and prolonged legal formalities. The latter was borne out by a survey conducted by SaveLIFE Foundation, an independent non-profit, non-governmental organisation committed to the cause of improved road safety and emergency care.
However, what is good news is that the unwillingness or hesitancy of passers-by could well change now after the Supreme Court has made it binding on all states and Union Territories to implement the “Good Samaritan” guidelines, the basic premise of which is that there should be no civil or criminal liability attached to an individual who comes forward to report an accident or help an injured accident victim.
A brief timeline of relevant developments
In 2012, SaveLIFE Foundation had filed a PIL, looking to have in place a set of guidelines to protect Good Samaritans from harassment, intimidation and coercion, and also ensure effective trauma services across the country.
In October 2013, the Supreme Court appointed a committee under the chairmanship of the Additional Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, to study in detail the issues mentioned in this PIL and submit a final report to the Court on the same.
The recommendations made in this report pertaining to the protection of Good Samaritans was explicitly supported by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in an affidavit in October 2014.
Shortly thereafter, the apex court directed both the Ministry of Law and Justice and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways to issue necessary directions with regard to the protection of Good Samaritans until appropriate legislation was enacted by the Union Legislature.
On 12 May, 2015 the Government of India had issued detailed guidelines for protection of Good Samaritans and on 22 January, 2016 it issued the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to protect Good Samaritans from police harassment.
However, given that these SOPs had no statutory backing and were merely advisory in nature, it was difficult to implement the same and fear persisted among bystanders that the guidelines could well be flouted. However, on 4 March 2016, at a hearing of the petition, the Supreme Court clearly stated that it would now be binding on all States and Union Territories of India.
This is significant because the court order now makes the guidelines as good as law. Non-compliance will be treated as contempt of Supreme Court.
What do the guidelines state?
The Standard Operating Procedures issued by the Ministry in January 2016, which all states and UTs must now follow, clearly state (among other things) that:
- Any person, except in the capacity of an eyewitness, can call the Police Station or Control Room to give information about any accidental injury or death, without revealing his personal details such as full name, address, phone number etc.
- The police, even upon arrival at the scene, cannot compel the Good Samaritan to reveal such details
- Any Good Samaritan who helps an injured person cannot be forced by the Police to become a witness in the matter; whether or not he wants to become a witness in the matter shall solely rest with him.
- In case a Good Samaritan chooses to be a witness, the investigation will be conducted as far as possible at a time and place of his convenience and by an Investigating Officer in plain clothes.
- If this cannot be done, and the Good Samaritan is required by the Investigation Officer to visit the police station, the officer must give reasons for the same in writing.
- Where the Good Samaritan himself chooses to visit a police station as a witness, he shall be examined in a single examination in a reasonable and time-bound manner, without causing any undue delay.
- Under no circumstances should the Good Samaritan, whether as a witness or merely a reporter, be discriminated on the grounds of gender, religion, nationality, caste or any other grounds.
The complete text of the standard operating procedures as notified by the government can be read here.