As Christmas becomes a distant memory, plans turn to taking a break during Easter or the summer. British drivers are being warned that from May they can be tracked down and fined for driving offences in Europe.
It means that those who accidentally break the speed limit, park incorrectly, enter a bus lane at the wrong time or are suspected of using a mobile phone while driving can be hit with fines.
A little known European Union directive – Cross Border Enforcement, 2015/413 – had been resisted by the British government after it successfully secured a two-year opt-out clause. But from 7 May, this expires.
It means that drivers heading to some of the most popular tourist destination on the continent, including France, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, will no longer be immune from penalties, even if they mistakenly commit a driving offence.
Authorities of EU governments will be given access to vehicle ownership records held by other countries. These can then be used to prosecute for offences carried out in a foreign registered car, even after the driver has returned to the UK.
However, in a twist that is likely to baffle many British motorists, there won’t be the same treatment for EU drivers visiting the UK.
Critics accuse the EU of creating ‘one-way justice’ rules and regulations
In many EU countries, the vehicle owner is ultimately liable for fines. In the UK, the liability rests with the individual that was driving the car at the time of the offence.
The Department for Transport says that this means British police would not use the directive to fine foreign drivers who commit offences in the UK. In a typical year, more than 23,000 speeding offences alone go unpunished.
Critics accuse the EU of creating ‘one-way justice’ rules and regulations. Edmund King, the AA president, told The Times: “The EU cross-border enforcement directive is a contradiction in terms as it is neither cross-border nor enforceable. It is a one-way street.”
Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Fountation, said: “The directive would make anyone question the EU’s record in protecting all our interests.
“No one is saying that Brits should escape prosecution for motoring offences they commit on the continent. But we surely need a system that ensures EU drivers breaking our traffic rules can expect the same.”
About the EU cross-border enforcement directive
When was this law first introduced?
Following previously botched attempts, the EU successfully implemented directive 2015/413 in May, 2015.
Why has it taken until May 2017 to come into effect for British drivers?
The UK, Denmark and Ireland opted out of the original directive, but have to comply by May 2017.
Doesn’t Brexit make this all rather pointless?
Not in the EU’s eyes. It claims that in 2014 there were 10 million offences committed by drivers visiting other countries. And in 2015, when the directive went ‘live’, two million drivers were tracked down for offences they’d committed. Until Britain has left the EU, member states can collect fines.
Who will recover the fines from British drivers?
Not busy British courts, thankfully. However, unfortunately, the task will be handed to debt collection agencies.
What if British drivers refuse to pay?
The fine will increase, and there is a high likelihood that if drivers return to the country where they committed the offence, they could be stopped by the police and subject to further fines and punishment for ignoring the penalty.
James is a motoring journalist and former magazine editor at BBC Top Gear and Auto Express. He has scooped, reported on and reviewed most new cars of the past 20 years, and currently contributes to the Driving section of The Sunday Times.