Understanding Different Driving Offences and the Penalties

By: Lisa Harper

While most of us wouldn’t dream of breaking the law, driving offences are quite commonplace, and many of us will have broken at least one UK driving law at some point through our driving lifetime.

Driving offences can vary from relatively minor misdemeanours to more serious offences. To help you understand what laws you may have committed, we’ve compiled a complete guide to various driving offences and the subsequent punishments you may face when driving.

The Difference between Minor and Major Offences

Different driving offences usually fall into one of two categories; minor and major offences.

Minor Offences: 

Minor offences include low-level misdemeanours, and the usual treatment is a fixed penalty notice (FPN). An FPN is an administrative alternative to prosecution in a Magistrates Court and usually involves the issue of a fine and penalty points on your driving licence. If you accept guilt, pay the fine or collect the points, you avoid a summons. However, if you challenge the FPN, you will have to appear in court.  

Common minor offences include low-level speeding, driving without an MOT and using a handheld mobile phone behind the wheel.

Minor offences must be declared to your insurance company and may result in higher premiums.

Major Offences:

Major offences are serious misdemeanours dealt with at a Magistrates Court.  They include offences such as driving under the influence of alcohol and dangerous driving.

Usually, the circumstances around the offence will be taken into consideration, along with your driving record and any mitigating circumstances.

The punishment for major offences includes a driving ban and/or prison sentence depending on the severity of the offence.

For major driving offences that aren't expected to result in a driving ban, you don’t always have to appear in court and can instead make a plea by letter.

Different Driving Offences

Speeding Offences

‘It is an offence under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to exceed the speed limit for a vehicle of the class that is being driven.’

Speeding offences are the most common offence in the UK and the offence the majority of us will commit at some point during our time driving.

It is a common myth that you can travel 10% plus 2mph above a given speed limit. However, in reality, this is just a guideline for police to work with, and it is down to their discretion. They can still prosecute you if you are travelling 1mph over the speed limit. For your own and other road users safety, you should always stick within the given speed limit.

For minor speeding offences, the usual penalty is £100 fine or three penalties. However, some people may be offered a speed awareness course instead.

If you are caught travelling more than 45% over the speed limit, the offence is classed much more seriously. In this case, the offence will usually be passed to the Magistrates Court for prosecution and could result in a hefty fine and even a driving ban.

Mobile Phone Use

‘Using a mobile phone or handheld device is a specific offence but also can be considered as dangerous or careless driving.’

Mobile phone use is an area that police are trying to crack down on due to the continued disregard of the rules from motorists. Since March 2017, the penalty for using a handheld mobile phone when driving increased to a £200 roadside fine and six penalty points. However, if the offence is considered to be more serious, it can go to court, which can lead to a driving ban or a fine of up to £1,000.

You should remember that you can be fined for using a handheld mobile phone when the engine is running, so you should never be tempted to take a sneaky peek at your phone at traffic lights. Or if pulling over to answer a call or check your phone, you should do so only where it is safe to do so, and you should switch your engine off.

It is legal to use a mobile phone if using an approved ‘hands-free’ device, but you should always bear in mind that even doing this may reduce your concentration.

Careless Driving (or driving without due care and attention)

‘Under section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 is committed when the defendant's driving falls below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver.’

Careless driving covers a multitude of driving misdemeanours, meaning it is quite easy to end up committing an offence without realising. Major factors include excessive speed, aggressive driving, carrying out other tasks when driving, driving when tired or ill and driving contrary to medical advice.

If you are deemed to be driving carelessly, police can hand out on the spot fines of up to £100 and three penalty points, while serious offences will be referred to court and could result in a £2,500 fine and a driving ban.

For really serious cases of careless driving like a crash that causes a fatality, you could be prosecuted for causing death by careless driving. This can lead to a driving ban, an unlimited fine and a prison sentence up to five years.  

Dangerous Driving

‘Under section 2 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 is committed when the defendant’s driving falls far below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver and it would be obvious that driving in that way would be dangerous.’

Dangerous driving is a more serious offence than careless driving and as such leads to harsher punishments. Depending on the seriousness of the offence, it can result in an unlimited fine, a driving ban and up to 14 years in prison.

Dangerous driving includes driving aggressively, overtaking in dangerous locations and racing other vehicles.

Drink or Drug Driving

‘It is illegal to drive if the amount of alcohol in your breath, blood or urine is over the prescribed alcohol limit and you are unfit to do so through alcohol or drugs (legal or illegal) in your system.’

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the legal alcohol limit for driving is 80milligrammes per 100ml of blood. Scotland meanwhile has a lower limit of just 50milligrammes per 100ml of blood.

It is hard to quantify what this blood level equates to in a given drink. That’s because the actual amount of alcohol you can drink while remaining under the limit varies depending on various factors, including your body size and how much you’ve had to eat. The best advice is not to drink at all if you are driving, plus if you have been drinking heavily the night before you should avoid driving the next morning as you may still be over the limit.

Police can stop you at any time to breathalyser you and test the amount of alcohol in your breath. If you fail the breathalyser test or if you fail to comply with the police, you will be arrested and taken to a police station to provide a more accurate breath test. If this further test shows that you are over the limit, you face a driving ban, an unlimited fine and up to six months in prison.

If you are involved in a crash while over the alcohol limit and are found to be responsible for another person’s death, you could be hit by 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine and a driving ban of at least two years. You may also be required to take an extended driving test to get your licence back. 

When it comes to drugs, there is no ‘legal limit’ and police can carry out roadside tests if they suspect you are unfit to drive due to legal or illegal drugs.

It is important to note that both illegal and legal drugs can result in you being pulled over. So while many of us would never consider taking illegal substances, we may inadvertently take legal drugs which affect our driving performance. Amphetamines, morphine and some anti-histamines are some of the commonly prescribed drugs which can affect your ability to drive.

The penalty for drug driving can be a driving ban of up to one year, an unlimited fine and six months in prison, however, as with all driving offences the worse the offence, the worse the punishment.   

Driving Documentation Offences

‘It is also an offence to fail to produce a driving licence - section 164 (1) Road Traffic Act 1988, an MOT certificate or insurance certificate - section 165 Road Traffic Act 1988.’

Thanks to advances in technology, police are now able to more easily track driving documentation offences. Using automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras, police can identify cars being illegally driven without insurance or a valid MOT.

Driving Without Insurance

Can lead to a roadside penalty of up to £300 and six penalty points on your licence. Police also have the power to seize uninsured vehicles. 

Driving Without an MOT

An MOT is the car’s annual test of roadworthiness and is designed to help keep you and other motorists safer on the road. If you are pulled by police for not having a valid MOT, you face a £100-on-the-spot fine but no penalty points.

In cases where the car is also deemed to be road unworthy, you can face more serious fines and the case may go to the Magistrates court. You can be hit a fine and points on your licence for each fault discovered. So for example, if your car has four tyres below the legal 1.6mm legal tread depth, you can face a £400 fine and 12 penalty points (this number of points could then lead to a driving ban).  

Other Common Offences

There are many other common driving offences including:

Driving Otherwise in Accordance with a Licence

This offence covers a myriad of offences from driving underage, driving on a provisional licence without appropriate supervision and driving without a licence at all. The punishment can be a fine of up to £1,000, six points on your licence and a possible disqualification from driving.

Driving When Disqualified

Driving when disqualified is considered a serious offence, and if you’re caught driving during a ban, police will arrest you on the spot. A court will then decide your fate, which could mean a custodial sentence.

Other minor offences include not wearing a seatbelt and using an unsuitable or incorrectly fitted car seat.

Sources: Information regarding specific laws taken from https://www.cps.gov.uk/driving-offences

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