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What are road traffic offences?

Road traffic offences are criminal offences related to conduct on the roads. They cover a range of behaviours, including specific actions (eg using a mobile phone while driving) and general poor standards of driving (eg dangerous driving). For reference, proper rules for and standards of driving are set out in the Highway Code

What is dangerous driving?

Dangerous driving is a specific road traffic offence. It is when someone’s driving is far below the standard of a careful and competent driver. Various behaviours can constitute dangerous driving, many of which put the driver and other road users in danger. These behaviours can include, but are not limited to:

  • speeding

  • driving a vehicle that’s known to be unsafe

  • driving when the driver is unfit to drive (whether due to alcohol or drugs, sleep deprivation, injury or illness, or other reasons)

  • doing other activities whilst driving

  • performing dangerous manoeuvres or ignoring road rules (eg by intentionally driving through a red light)

Whether or not these or other behaviours will constitute dangerous driving in a given instance depends on how far below the required standard of driving the conduct is, rather than exactly which category of conduct it is. 

What is careless driving?

Also known as ‘inconsiderate driving’ or ‘driving without due care and attention’, careless driving is another specific road traffic offence. It occurs when someone’s driving is below the minimum standard expected of a careful and competent driver - but they need not be driving far below this standard. It is a similar offence to dangerous driving, but less serious. Various behaviours may constitute careless driving. Examples include:

  • driving unnecessarily slowly

  • not dipping headlights when appropriate

  • following other vehicles too closely

  • turning, driving, or overtaking too close to others or in an inappropriate position on the road  

  • accidentally ignoring road rules (eg by inadvertently driving through a red light)

As for dangerous driving, whether or not these or other behaviours will constitute careless driving in a given instance depends on how far below the required standard of driving the conduct is.

What are some other key road traffic offences?

There are various other specific road traffic offences that drivers can be charged with. The conduct required to commit these offences may sometimes constitute dangerous or careless driving as well as these offences. Other road traffic offences include: 

Driving under the influence

Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (including legal drugs, such as prescription drugs) can be an offence. 

Driving under the influence of alcohol, or ‘drink driving’, is driving over the legal alcohol limit. The alcohol limits vary from England and Wales to Scotland (which has a lower limit). It is measured as the quantity of alcohol found in the blood, breath, or urine, which will differ from person to person even if they've consumed the same amount of alcohol, based on a variety of factors (eg food consumption and body mass). Convictions for drink driving can result in fines, driving bans, and even imprisonment. 

It is illegal to drive with certain levels of certain illegal drugs in your bloodstream, even if your driving ability has not been impaired. Driving with legal or illegal drugs in your system can also be illegal if this has made you unfit to drive. Penalties can include unlimited fines, driving bans, and up to 6 months in prison. In Scotland, there is an additional zero-tolerance rule, under which anyone who takes illegal drugs and drives commits an offence.

Using a phone or sat nav while driving

It is illegal to hold and use a phone or sat nav or other similar device while driving, even while stationary at traffic lights or in a traffic jam. These are exceptions, for example, if a phone is being used to call the emergency services and it is unsafe or impractical to stop. 

Penalties for this offence can include penalty points, fines, and driving bans. You may also lose your licence, for example, if you’ve passed your driving test in the last 2 years and committed this offence whilst riding a motorcycle.

Not wearing a seatbelt

Subject to limited exceptions (eg whilst reversing or driving whilst delivering goods with less than 50 metres between stops), a driver must wear a seatbelt

Drivers are also responsible for ensuring that any children in their vehicles are in the correct car seats and are wearing seatbelts. Failure to ensure this can result in a fine of up to £500.

Driving without insurance or without a MOT

It is an offence to drive on public roads without insurance. A driver must have at least third-party insurance. 

It’s also an offence to drive or park your vehicle on a public road if it doesn’t have a MOT, unless you’re driving the vehicle to a pre-arranged MOT test or to get repaired. 

Penalties for these offences can include fines and disqualifications. 

What are the penalties for road traffic offences?

Penalties for road traffic offences generally depend on the type of offence and its severity. Driving offences are often penalised in the following ways:

  • penalty points - an offence can incur a certain number of penalty points (or ‘endorsements’), which stay on a driving licence for up to 11 years. If a driver collects 12 points or more within 3 years, they are disqualified from driving. New drivers who receive 6 points within 2 years of passing their test can have their licence revoked. Driving whilst disqualified can cause a driver to be given additional penalty points

  • fines - fines can be imposed up to certain limits

  • disqualification - courts may impose immediate discretionary or obligatory disqualifications separately to the usual penalty point system

  • prosecution - in serious cases, criminal prosecution may occur, which can and lead to imprisonment

Most minor offences, such as speeding, generally result in fixed penalty notices (FPNs), which confer a combination of penalty points and a fine.

How can driving convictions be defended?

Fixed penalty notices can be disputed, meaning that the driver can plead guilty or not guilty. Pleading not guilty can result in increased costs if the plea is unsuccessful.

A FPN resulting from speeding sometimes offers a driver the option to undertake a speeding awareness course. Although the driver needs to pay for the course, by taking this option they can avoid the penalty fine and points.

Drivers convicted of motoring offences via the courts may choose to appeal the conviction itself or just the sentence.

If you have any questions or are considering an appeal against a road traffic offence, you can Ask a lawyer for advice.

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