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The rules of the road – and how they get broken

When we think of ‘car crime’ it’s usually vehicles being broken into or stolen by criminals. But our cars are also where we’re perhaps most likely to act outside of the law ourselves.

When we think of ‘car crime’ it’s usually vehicles being broken into or stolen by criminals. But our cars are also where we’re perhaps most likely to act outside of the law ourselves.

On the wrong side of the law?

Did you know you can fall foul of the law by using a sat nav that's not in its proper holder?

Were you aware your fully comprehensive insurance may not automatically offer cover for you to drive other vehicles?

Did you know that, while it isn't illegal to drive barefoot or in flip flops, it could both be dangerous and land you with a fine if you're deemed not to be in proper control of your vehicle because of it?

Theft of vehicles is one of the fastest growing areas of crime there is in England and Wales. Taking steps to protect your vehicle is as important as ever

How you may unintentionally break the law as a motorist

Many people who would count themselves as generally law abiding break motoring rules every day. Lapses in concentration and ignorance of the law can be to blame.

“We see people taking momentary risks, even if they assess the risk as being remote, that can see them prosecuted by an observing police officer. These sort of ‘momentary risks’, not just related to how we interact with technology in cars but anything from eating whilst driving to driving in inappropriate footwear, can often be contributing factors to much more serious incidents where serious injury or even death is caused.

“In those instances, aside from it being life changing or fatal to other road users, can result in the driver being banned from the roads and even imprisoned. What may be assessed by the driver as seemingly innocuous minor flouting of the law can, in fact, have a far-reaching impact on not just your own life but the lives of others.

“There is no doubt that a huge amount of these offences go unnoticed and unpunished every day but the ones that are caught out are judged against what is considered to be competent and careful not what is considered to be the norm and what others are doing every day on our roads.”

When an offence is committed it may lead to penalty points being added to your licence.

The reality is that there are many more distractions in modern vehicles, and  drivers often spend a lot more time in their vehicles.

Paul Loughlin
Motorist specialist at Stephenson Solicitors

Julie Daniels

Motor insurance expert

"Penalty points can be bad news for your car insurance premiums. Drivers with convictions, such as penalty points, could not only pay more for their car insurance, they could also struggle to find an insurance provider willing to cover them.”

According to Compare the Market quotation data for the period between 1 January 2019 and 31 March 2019, 11% of quote enquiries declared driving convictions. While there are a range of factors that affect the amount you pay for your car insurance, the average premium for those with convictions is £845 versus £697 for those with no convictions.

The most common convictions among Compare the Market enquiries are for exceeding a 30mph limit (57% of the convictions declared were for this and exceeding a 50mph limit (12%).

Some of the ways motorists may overstep the boundaries

Using a hand-held phone (even for sat nav)

Most people are aware it’s illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone or device while driving, but some may not realise it could extend to using a device for sat nav. Holding or touching your phone while driving, even to use sat nav, will likely constitute an offence.

The law states you must have hands-free access, such as voice command, a dashboard holder or mat, or windscreen mount.

You’ll be breaking the law even if you use your handheld phone when at traffic lights.

The penalty for using your phone while driving is a minimum of three points and a fine of £60, but could extend to disqualification and a fine of up to £1,000.

Driving barefoot or in flip flops

While it is not specifically illegal to drive barefoot or in flip flops in the UK, it is ill advised and could lead to a prosecution if you’re not in proper control of your vehicle.

Rule 97 of the Highway Code says you must ensure your clothing and footwear do not prevent you from using the controls in the correct manner.

Being barefoot may mean you do not have the same breaking force as you would in shoes, which could also lead to problems.

Prescription drugs that impair driving

It’s illegal to drive even with legal drugs in your system that may impair your ability. This may include tablets such as hay fever cures should they make you drowsy or affect your vision.

If you take prescription medication or over-the-counter medicines it’s advised to talk to a healthcare professional for advice.

There are specified limits for:

- amphetamine, eg dexamphetamine or selegiline
- clonazepam
- diazepam
- flunitrazepam
- lorazepam
- methadone
- morphine or opiate and opioid-based drugs, eg codeine, tramadol or fentanyl
- oxazepam
- temazepam

Eyesight standards for driving and risk of sunglasses

It’s important to ensure your eyesight and, where relevant, glasses prescription remains good enough to allow you to meet minimum standards.

To drive legally you must be able to read a car number plate from 20 metres away.

While sunglasses can be useful to help avoid the need to pull over or stop due to being dazzled by the sun, as required by the Highway Code, it’s important to note some are not suitable for driving.

That includes those categorised as ‘Class 4’ due to the amount of light they filter out.


Fronting is the illegal practice of naming - on a car insurance policy - someone as the main driver when it is not genuinely the case. This is often done to allow a more experienced driver to be listed as the main driver, which can bring the policy cost down, but may also invalidate the insurance.

If you’re found guilty of fronting you could end up with a fine of up to £7,000 and six penalty points on your driving licence.



Volvo has announced plans to install cameras and sensors in cars from the early 2020s to monitor drivers for signs of being intoxicated or distracted.

Despite the deadly risk involved in drink-driving, Department for Transport figures show that 6.6% of drivers said they had driven when they thought they were above the legal limit at least once in 2017/18. Of course, the risk of being over the limit also extends to the morning after an evening of drinking.

Young drivers aged 20-24 were most likely to report driving when they may have been over the limit, with 12% of drivers in that age group saying they may have done so at least once.

The road safety charity Brake is campaigning for zero tolerance for impaired driving and a reduction in the drink-drive limit, stating that even one drink affects driving.

Drink driving law varies in different countries, even those within the UK. In Scotland the limit is lower than in the rest of the UK.

In Scotland, the breath limit is 22mcg in 100ml of breath. In the rest of the UK it is 35mcg in 100ml of breath. 

A single drink may be enough to push you over the drink drive limit.

Misunderstanding insurance cover

Traditionally, fully comprehensive insurance cover often included cover to drive other vehicles on a third-party basis.

More recently, this is less regularly a standard feature and motorists who do not realise it could run the risk of driving another vehicle without insurance. It is vital to check your policy.

It’s actually quite likely you are not insured to drive someone else’s car under your standard policy, even if it is fully comprehensive.

Car seats for kids

Research conducted by the organisation Child Seat Safety found 3% of children who legally needed a car seat were not transported in one.

Children must normally use a child car seat until they are 12 years old or 135cm tall, whichever comes first.

Children over 12 or more than 135cm tall must wear a seat belt.

There are exceptions in the case of an unexpected and unavoidable emergency journey or when there is no room for a third child car seat.

Children are allowed to sit in the front if they’re in the correct car seat for their age, but RoSPA (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) advises they’re safer in the back. It is illegal to put a child in a rearward facing seat if there is an active passenger airbag. 

 The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents

“A properly fitted child car seat will help to prevent your child from being thrown about inside the vehicle, or ejected from it, if there is a crash.

“It will also absorb some of the impact force, and provide some protection from objects intruding into the passenger compartment.

“A seat belt on its own will not properly fit your child, until they are at least 135 cm (4'6") tall, although it's better to wait until they are 150 cm (5ft) or taller before moving them to the seat belt on its own.”


There were more than 2 million fixed penalty notices handed out in England and Wales for speeding in the year ending March 2017 - an increase of 2% on the previous year.

That’s more than three speeding penalties handed out every minute.

Recent Home Office figures show the number of speeding offences being recorded is higher now than ever.

If it is assumed all those speeding penalties were given to different drivers it would mean around 6% of drivers were caught speeding in England and Wales.*

The minimum penalty for speeding is a £100 fine and three penalty points on your licence. In some cases motorists are offered the chance to take part in a speed awareness course and be spared penalty points. Courses are generally offered to those without a recent speeding offence and when the speed limit was not being excessively exceeded (such as up to around 42mph in a 30mph zone).

*Assuming 74 per cent of those aged 17 plus hold a driving licence, which is around 32.9million people[7] , National Travel Survey: England 2017
Taking population of Wales to be 3,125,165[8] . If 74 per cent are drivers = 2, 300 000 drivers
Total no of drivers England and Wales 35.2m.

Letting screen wash run out

Failing to keep a vehicle properly maintained could also land you in trouble with the law. Tyres, for example, of course, have to remain roadworthy with proper tread.

Additionally, it is an offence under the Road Vehicle Regulations act of 1986 to drive a car without effective wipers and washer.

Driving laws in other countries

Further confusion over motoring laws may be caused when you cross borders in your car. Different countries, even within Europe, have differing rules. In America you’ll find differing laws from state to state.

We’ve taken a look at some of the rules that exist in other countries. Remember laws change and it’s vital to check local and most up-to-date rules before driving.

You are not allowed to eat or drink at the wheel

Republic of Ireland
You must not use your car horn between 11.30pm and 7am

If you need glasses to drive, you must carry a spare pair with you

You’re not allowed to carry bikes on the back of a car

Northern Ireland
In the 12 months after passing their test, new drivers must display R plates and 45mph is their maximum speed limit

You must not use full-beam headlights and, within the city limits, must not use your car horn

You must not overtake or pass a school bus that is approaching a stopping point

If you’ve held a driving licence for less than three years, you are restricted to driving slower than the maximum speed limits in wet weather

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