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British roads and drivers safer thanks to EU exchange of information on serious traffic offences

May 18th, 2014

[updated 22 May 2014]

The Sunday Times has an article today correctly saying that European legislation in the pipeline will mean British drivers abroad will no longer be able to get away with serious traffic offences like shooting red lights or speeding. This is because a new EU law will mean police forces on the continent will – with the help of the UK authorities – be able to pursue them to pay fines even once they are back in the UK.

The article gets the facts right, though it waits until the end to point out that the measure works both ways and will also mean UK police forces can collect fines due from drivers from other parts of Europe. As the piece says, “this will be a boon for the Treasury”.

Currently, across Europe, a foreign driver is three times more likely to break the law of the road than a resident driver, accounting for five per cent of traffic but fifteen per cent of offences. Most of which go unpunished because currently countries are unable to pursue drivers once they return to their home country. Many people therefore seem to think that when they go abroad the rules no longer apply to them.

So these new rules should make UK roads safer.

They mean that – at last – a non-UK driver in Britain shooting a light while law-abiding British citizens wait patiently alongside will no longer get away with it.

They will also mean that good British drivers and their families abroad – say in the South of France in August, when there are millions of visitors from all over Europe – will also be safer because there will be a stronger deterrent against stupid driving by “boy racers”, or indeed “girl racers”, wherever in the EU they happen to be from.

Four of the traffic offences covered by the expected EU rules account for 75% of road deaths: drink driving, speeding, running red lights and failure to use seatbelts. The rules also cover driving under influence of drugs, failing to wear safety helmets, illegal use of an emergency lane and the illegal use of a mobile phone while driving. But not parking offences.

The new law does not harmonise either the nature of the offence or the penalties for the offence. So it is the national rules in the Member State of offence which will continue to apply regarding both what is and is not an offence, how breaches are punished and how to tackle those who ignore imposed penalties. Matters such as the transference of points, for example, would again be up to Member States to decide by way of bilateral or multilateral agreements. Appeal procedures will also be for national authorities to determine.

The Sunday Times is also right to point out that the European Court of Justice has ruled that the original legal base for the EU law concerned – the part of the EU treaty dealing with justice matters – was the wrong one and that the measure instead falls under the transport part of the treaty. The UK, like Ireland and Denmark, has an opt-out of all justice measures – though it has said it will seek to opt back in to many of them.

But transport measures apply to all Member States, so if a qualified (i.e. large) majority of EU Member States and a simple majority of MEPs vote for the measure once presented to them again under the transport clauses of the treaty it will be binding on the UK.

It is a fair guess that many members of the UK public would favour a measure aimed at stopping people from all EU Member States getting away with driving illegally abroad and thus potentially killing innocent road users. Especially as the UK has a strong road safety record compared to some other EU countries –why jeopardise this by continuing to allow European drivers who fail to abide by British law to escape justice?

The Daily Mail followed-up on The Sunday Times article with a less balanced piece, leaving until the very end the quote from the EC making it clear this measure works both ways and that British police can also pursue drivers from elsewhere in EU who offend on UK roads.

Judging by some of the reader comments, not everyone noticed this ‘afterthought’. But one Mail reader summed up admirably succinctly the key issue here  – “Why should you think that you can drive dangerously or illegally in a foreign country and never pay the penalty?”


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Please note that all statements in all entries were correct on the date of publication given. However, older archived posts are not systematically updated in the light of later developments, for example changes to EU law.

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