David Williams: One Europe for all of its drivers

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Indy Lifestyle Online

It doesn't take long to spot a foreign-registered car on the roads of Kent.

It doesn't take long to spot a foreign-registered car on the roads of Kent. The M20 running from South-east London almost as far as Dover carries more of them than any other motorway in the UK and, it seems, most of the drivers of these vehicles choose to exceed the speed limit.

However, where UK motorists might correctly pick up a fixed penalty notice and a £60 fine for their transgression, the vast majority of "oversees" drivers will escape unpunished because there is no workable way of dealing with them.

The Criminal Justice Co-operation Act 1990, allows police to prosecute non-UK licence holders for offences more normally dealt with through the fixed penalty system. However, this would mean serving a summons on the driver and holding him until he can appear before a Magistrates' Court, but the administrative burden usually far exceeds the gravity of the offence. It is surely unrealistic to expect our police cells to be full of European speeders awaiting a court appearance. In addition, there are wide ranging human rights problems for the police if they arrest and detain a driver for an offence for which a UK driver would receive only a fine and licence endorsement. It is generally agreed that the issue of foreign speeders is a very complex one with UK police forces operating in something of a morass and consequently turning a blind eye to the problem, resulting in foreign drivers getting away scot-free in circumstances where increasing numbers of UK motorists are paying fines and collecting penalty points. British drivers abroad can't hope for immunity from punishment. Drive too fast through France, for instance, and you could face a hefty on-the-spot fine. The French are geared up to a fining system that is effective for drivers of any nationality. However, British police forces have always resisted calls for this so called "cash register justice".

One of the more frustrating aspects of this law enforcement imbalance in the UK comes with increasing reliance on automatic speed detection equipment. More and more UK drivers are falling victim to penalties generated by technology, but the vast majority of foreign registered vehicles need have no fear of speed cameras, bus lane cameras and even congestion charge cameras. Even in the case of UK registered vehicles on hire to foreign drivers it is virtually impossible for the penalty to be imposed. Hire companies merely return the speeding ticket to the appropriate police force with a copy of the rental agreement, which exonerates the hire company but leaves the police force with a fine they are unable to enforce.

One solution is for the camera to store the offending vehicles details including its country of origin and for this information to be accessed by other cameras at the ports. When the driver attempts to leave the country the port authority could spot the vehicle and impose a fine and appropriate costs before it is allowed to leave. The costs of establishing such a system would be high and, initially, would undoubtedly fall on to the shoulders of the UK taxpayer.

Some changes to help the overall problem are on their way in the form of international legislation. In the future, drivers banned from driving in one EU country would also be banned in the other community countries. In addition, moves are afoot to update the whole traffic enforcement system so that it can become effective across Europe. What is needed is a European wide licencing authority and harmonisation of the traffic offences, enforcement and penalties. But these changes are several years away and, in the meantime, many speeding offenders will be able to ignore the signs and the cameras and "get away with it".

David Williams is the chief executive of GEM Motoring Assist (formerly The Guild of Experienced Motorists).

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