Common driving offences
Common driving offences
Exceeding speed limits, driving with alcohol/drugs in your system above a certain level, using hand-held devices such as mobile phones at the wheel and driving without being entitled to do so are against the law, even if the driving itself is unimpaired.
Yet every year in the UK, a huge number of these risky offences are clocked by cameras, recorded by the police and/or end up in court, while nearly 2.8 million drivers in Great Britain have at least three or more points on their licence.
For people who cycle already or would like to, this makes for hostile and off-putting road conditions.
Below, we summarise what Cycling UK believes should be done to tackle the most common driving offences and, in doing so, help make active travel more appealing.
- Technology helping to detect offences is more widespread and efficient nowadays, but it isn’t everywhere and neither are roads traffic police. This means that offence data, which can only cover infringements by drivers who are caught, don’t account for infringements that miss detection altogether.
- When the driving is impaired and/or when it causes injury or death, the driver may be prosecuted for ‘careless’ or ‘dangerous’ driving, a subject we cover elsewhere (e.g. on pp 23–26 of Cycling UK’s Five flaws: failing laws report – the Bill this report was designed to influence has now passed, but our recommendations still stand).
- Effective traffic policing is crucial to tackling bad driving
- For details of the applicable legislation and penalties for the offences covered below, please consult Highway Code annexes: England, Wales & Scotland; Northern Ireland.
Exceeding the speed limit
- In England and Wales alone, about 2.4 million speed limit offences resulted in fixed penalty notices (FPNs), driver retraining or court action in 2021. This makes speeding the most prevalent offence by far, typically more than four-fifths of the motoring offences logged by the central database used by most police forces (which doesn’t include driving under the influence and dangerous driving offences).
- Under free-flowing conditions in Great Britain, only 50% of cars drivers obeyed the speed limit on 30 mph roads in 2022, with 5% exceeding the limit by 10 mph.
- In England and Wales, police sent 1.5 million people on speed awareness courses in 2022.
- Also, ‘exceeding the speed limit’ and ‘travelling too fast for the conditions’ are among the most common contributory factors (CFs) attributed by police at collision scenes – together amount to about a quarter of all fatal crashes in 2022. Indeed, speed-related CFs may be under-reported because it’s not always immediately obvious to a police officer whether speed was involved or not. (CFs are not the result of forensic investigations, nor do they reflect any subsequent verdict in court).
But local communities, casualty reduction and 20 mph initiatives (e.g. in Wales), not to mention vulnerable road users, need drivers to obey speed limits. After all, evidence suggests that a pedestrian is five times more likely to be killed by a motor vehicle going at around 30mph than at 20mph, a speed at which a driver has more time brake before hitting anyone.
This is why Cycling UK believes that:
- Speeding fines are too low to change behaviour significantly.
- Extreme speed (e.g. 20 mph+ over the limit) should be treated as dangerous driving in the first instance.
- There should be no margin under which a driver avoids penalty (i.e. the law and the speed at which enforcement begins need to be the same)
- When determining the severity of any speeding offence and the penalties for it, the presence (or likely presence) of vulnerable road users should be considered aggravating factors.
For over fifty years, drink-driving has been singled out by public information campaigns as a particularly unacceptable and dangerous offence.
Although most people in England now agree that "If someone has drunk any alcohol they should not drive", there’s no room for complacency:
- The Department for Transport says: “In 1979, 9% of road casualties occurred in collisions in which at least one driver or rider was over the drink-drive limit. This fell to 5% by 1992 and has mainly varied around 5% since then, with a broadly upward trend in the last few years (since 2014).”
- Official estimates suggest that 1,880 people were killed or seriously injured (KSI) drink-drive casualties in 2021 in Great Britain.
- Repeat offending is a significant issue.
- In England & Wales, almost 50,000 people were convicted by the courts of driving under the influence in 2022, only about 2,000 fewer than in 2010. (This does not include cases where a driver was also charged with a more serious offence).
In Northern Ireland, the police have the power to require drivers to take a breath test at checkpoints, even if they don’t have reasonable cause to suspect them of offending. This is not the case elsewhere in the UK.
In England, Wales and Scotland, it’s illegal to drive if there are certain drugs in your blood over specified limits, and you have not been prescribed them. Driving with legal drugs (prescription/over-the counter medicines) in the body is also an offence if it impairs driving.
This law doesn’t cover Northern Ireland, but drivers can still be arrested if unfit to drive.
Cycling UK believes that:
- The drink-drive blood alcohol limit should be lowered in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from 80mg/100ml to not more than 50mg/100ml.
- Novice drivers should not be allowed to drink at all before driving (Cycling UK supports ‘Graduated Driver Licensing’).
- Given that the stronger the possibility of being caught, the less likely people are to break the law, the police should be given more freedom to carry out random breath testing in England, Wales and Scotland.
- Alcohol interlocks should be fitted in offenders’ vehicles. If successful, the measure should be extended.
- Drink driving – taking stock, moving forward (PACTS 2020)
- The North Review on drink and drug driving law (Sir Peter North CBE QC, commissioned by the Department for Transport, 2010)
Mobile phones and other in-car distractions
The range of tasks possible on devices that can send or receive data is growing all the time, along with most people’s reliance on them.
Drivers can be prosecuted for not staying in full control of their vehicles (something that can happen if they’re distracted), but specific legislation exists on using mobile phones and similar devices (e.g. sat navs, tablets etc) at the wheel or riding a motorbike, even when stopped at traffic lights, and it’s toughened up over the last few years.
Most people now appear to be aware of the risks, and agree that the law on mobile phone use isn’t properly enforced. Also, observational studies and surveys asking drivers about their mobile phone behaviour seem to suggest that the majority complies with the law:
- 1% of drivers were observed holding mobiles in their hands or to their ears at selected sites in Great Britain in 2021.
- The Department for Transport reports that, of the 46.9% respondents to the Crime Survey for England & Wales (2019/20) who said they’d used a mobile phone when driving or in stationary traffic, 6.4% admitted that they’d held the phone in their hand.
- In 2019 (before the pandemic and lockdown hit), 28,321 offences for using a handheld mobile phone while driving resulted in fixed penalty notices, driver retraining or court action in England and Wales (19,655 in 2021).
Very sadly, Cycling UK is aware of several cases where cyclists have been killed or seriously hurt by drivers using mobile phones:
- Lee Martin, killed by texting driver Christopher Gard
- Chris Dennehy killed by a lorry driver John Noble who was reaching for his mobile phone to download a sermon
- Times journalist Mary Bowers, still in a minimally conscious state after being hit by a lorry driver Petre Beiu who was using a hands-free device
- Mark Greenwood, killed by driver John Michell who was exchanging flirty WhatsApp messages
- 17-year-old triathlete Daniel Squire, killed whilst cycling by driver Philip Sinden, who’d been texting continuously prior to the collision.
Clearly, using a mobile phone at the wheel puts other at risk.
This is the case, in fact, whether a driver is handling the device at the time or not. Simply talking on a phone is highly distracting (conversing with passengers is different because they can see for themselves what’s going on around the vehicle, but someone on the end of the line has little or no idea).
Evidence suggests that being involved in a phone conversation can impair driving performance (e.g. hazard perception, reaction times, lane discipline etc), and drivers are four times more likely to involved in a collision.
This is why Cycling UK, along with other road safety campaigners, believes that:
- The use of hands-free mobile phones whilst driving should be banned.
- Research on mobile phone use while driving (Report for the DfT, 2021)
- Changes in the law on driving while using a mobile phone (House of Commons Library, 2022)
- RAC’s annual motoring reports on drivers’ attitudes and opinions
Driving without a licence or third-party insurance
Driving without a licence (or correct licence) or third-party insurance undermines a system designed to maintain standards and compensate victims of bad driving.
Thousands of people, however, attempt to bypass these crucial requirements each year:
- In 2021, 111,397 ‘licence, insurance and record-keeping’ offences resulted in FPNs, driver retraining or court action in England & Wales.
- Research suggests that uninsured drivers are a high risk group of drivers.
- The Motor Insurers’ Bureau, who provide compensation to innocent victims of uninsured drivers, dealt with almost 8,500 uninsured claims in 2022, and helped seize 123,000 uninsured vehicles.
Disqualification in particular not only acts as a penalty, but also helps protect the public by removing bad drivers from the roads. This is why it’s so important for drivers to comply with bans and any requirement to take an extended test before re-gaining a driving licences.
Cycling UK therefore believes that:
- Any driver convicted of a bad driving offence whilst unlicensed or disqualified, and those who persistently break driving bans or go on driving despite not being entitled to do so for some reason, should receive a custodial sentence for the crime.