Obscure motoring laws you probably didn't know about

Carlton Boyce / 05 December 2015 ( 25 April 2018 )

Stay legal on the road with our guide to the obscure motoring laws you may not be aware of.



While most motoring laws, even the newer ones, are well known, there are some that might have escaped your attention – and ignorance is no defence.

To help you avoid a fine or worse, here’s our guide to the six motoring laws you probably didn’t know about!

Dirty number plates

The Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001 make it an offence to drive a motor vehicle with dirty number plates on a public road. While the police may have turned a blind eye in the past, they’re unlikely to do so now they rely on speed cameras, Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras, and other technological aids to register and report an offence by reading your car’s number plates.

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Flashing your headlights to warn other drivers of a speed trap

You might think that warning oncoming traffic of the presence of a speed trap is actually helping by slowing down speeding drivers, but the law takes a different view.

If the police see you doing it, you may well be charged under Section 51 of The Police Act 1964 with ‘obstructing a constable in the execution of his duty.’ If you are found guilty – and many have been – you face a fine of up to £1,000 or a month in prison.

Carlton Boyce

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Eating at the wheel

We all know that using a mobile phone while driving is an offence but did you know that eating could be too? 

The charge, should you be caught snacking, is likely to be ‘driving a motor vehicle in a position which does not give proper control’, an offence under the  Road Traffic Act (1988). The penalty is a fine of up to £1,000 andthree penalty points on your licence.

(By the way, some police apparently take the view that eating a sandwich one-handed is acceptable, but using two hands isn’t. As Chief Inspector Stuart Walne of South Yorkshire Police said in 2012 of a driver caught eating with both hands: 'It's one thing eating a biscuit or sandwich which I'm not saying is right, but you can still change gear and hold the wheel. To eat a cheesecake is just ludicrous.')

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Drinking in a motorhome

At the end of a long day behind the wheel, what could be nicer than pulling into a deserted layby in the middle of the countryside for a spot of wild camping?  

You can see it now, can’t you? A light supper of cheese and biscuits with a glass of something refreshing to wash it all down with while you watch the sun sink slowly below the horizon.

But hang on, you might find yourself in hot water: the Road Traffic Act (1988) is clear that you don’t have to be driving, or attempting to drive, a vehicle: ‘a person who, when in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle which is on a road or other public place, is unfit to drive through drink or drugs is guilty of an offence’ too.

There is a defence: ‘a person shall be deemed not to have been in charge of a mechanically propelled vehicle if he proves that at the material time the circumstances were such that there was no likelihood of his driving it so long as he remained unfit to drive through drink or drugs.’ 

In practice, that means you should take the keys out of the ignition, storing them away somewhere out of view where they aren’t immediately accessible.

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Switching off your engine

While most modern cars will switch the engine off to save fuel when the car is stationary, did you know that the law requires you to do the same?

The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 state: ‘the driver of a vehicle shall, when the vehicle is stationary, stop the action of any machinery attached to or forming part of the vehicle so far as may be necessary for the prevention of noise.‘ 

There is an exemption for cars sitting in a traffic jam, meaning you don’t have to turn your engine off when you are stuck in a queue, but if you are, for example, sitting in your car waiting for someone you must – or face an on-the-spot fine £20.

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Allowing someone to drive without insurance

Every vehicle used or sited on a public highway must be insured, but did you know that you could be guilty of an offence if you lend your car to someone and they don’t have insurance cover for it?

The general catchall for this is ‘aiding and abetting’ and while it is unusual for anyone to be charged, it does happen.

Essentially, both the vehicle and the driver need to be insured - if you're unsure, check the insurance documents to see how much cover you and the other driver have before lending your vehicle.


Keep your pets under control

More than a third of drivers admit to travelling with their dog loose in the car, leaving themselves open to a fine of up to £200 for failing to have proper control of their vehicle.

This could rise to as much as £2,500 – plus up to nine penalty points on their driving licence - if they’re convicted of the more serious offence of driving without due care and attention.

The bad news doesn’t end there either, because if it can be proved that your dog was a contributory factor in an accident, your insurance company could refuse to pay your claim.

Two very good reasons for making your pet travel in a crate, behind a dog guard in the boot, or restrained with a proper dog harness that connects to the seat belt.

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Drunk in charge of a bicycle – or your horse

Section 30 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 makes it an offence to be ‘unfit to ride through drink or drugs (that is to say, is under the influence of drink or a drug to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of the cycle)’. While you won’t lose your driving licence if you’re convicted, you will almost certainly be fined.

Pushing, or ‘wheeling’ your bike along is fine, though as the courts have established that this doesn’t amount to riding.

Incidentally, the Licensing Act 1872 makes it an offence to be ‘drunk while in charge on any highway or other public place of any carriage, horse, cattle, or steam engine.’ So, best to leave Dobbin at home if you fancy a drink…

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