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Talking on mobile phone while driving is not illegal: Kerala High Court

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Kerala High Court on Wednesday, May 16, 2018, ruled in favour of the petitioner stating that talking on mobile phone while driving is not illegal under Kerala Police Act, Section 118(e). If such a behaviour needs to be condemned then such statutory provisions should be enacted by the Kerala Legislative Assembly so that in future punitive measures could be implemented against such actions.

Facts of the case

On April 26, 2017, MJ Santhosh, a native of Kakkanad in Ernakulam, Kerala was arrested by the police for talking on mobile phone while driving in his car. The police booked him on dangerous driving charges and for endangering public safety. He was charged under Section 118(e) of Kerala Police Act (knowingly does any act which causes danger to public or failure in public safety) and Section 184 of the Motor Vehicles Act (driving a motor vehicle at a speed or in a manner which is dangerous to the public).

A single bench judge found MJ Santhosh to be a reckless driver and agreed with the prosecution that by displaying such reckless and dangerous driving the accused had attracted the provisions of Section 118(e) and is liable to be punished for such offences with imprisonment up to three years or with fine up to Rs. 10,000 or with both. But MJ Santhosh filed a petition with Kerala High Court through his advocate George Joseph Pulimoottil.

Court ruling

Advocate George Pulimoottil while presenting his case on behalf of the petitioner in front of two judges Division Bench comprising of Justices AM Shafique and P Somarajan of Kerala High Court pointed out the errors in the single judge’s verdict. He brought into Court’s notice a 2012 judgment by Justice SS Satheesachandran in a similar case (Abdul Latheef vs. State of Kerala) where it was held invoking Section 118(e) for unscrupulous and reckless drivers for using mobile phones while driving will not constitute an offence. Such drivers are liable to be punished under Section 184 Motor Vehicles Act for dangerous driving, the offence punishable with imprisonment up to six months or with fine up to Rs. 1,000.

The judges went over both the verdicts, the recent one, in this case, contradicting with the 2012 judgment to give their opinion in this case. The Court concurred with the 2012 verdict while ruling in favour of the petitioner stating that “the court can’t rule that the person who speaks on a mobile phone while driving causes danger to the public. There is no provision in the Police Act that bans people from talking over mobile phone while driving. Hence a person doing this can’t be assumed as one causes danger to the public. The assembly should pass an amendment to include these provisions in the Police Act to make it an offence.” The Kerala High Court further observed that anyone who has been charged under Section 118(e) has the right to seek remedy in such cases and “those concerned can approach the respective magistrate courts to quash their cases.”

Impact of the judgment

The judgment in this case could be considered a regressive one especially in the light of Rajasthan High Court’s April 24 verdict where the Court directed the state government to cancel licences of those caught talking on their mobile phones while driving. But Kerala High Court’s verdict has provided sufficient ammunition to dangerous drivers who would now be more inclined to break the law and pose more hazards on roads and a danger to public safety. A loophole in the legislation that usage of mobile phones while driving was not banned in either of the laws, the Acts being enacted prior to mobile usage becoming so popular cannot be construed as permission for reckless driving and utter disregard for public safety.

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