Although cross-border arrangements are in place in Europe for driving offences enforcement of any penalty remains hit and miss.
The procedures that apply in the event of a driving violation by a non-resident vary depending on whether you are stopped by the police/gendarmes, or you are caught by a camera.
Stopped by Police
In France, officials have the power of summary on-the-spot fines, as many tourists to France find to their cost each year.
A lack of available cash is unlikely to prevent enforcement of the fine, for officers will often allow a motorist to withdraw money from a local ATM.
In the most serious cases, where a driver is caught speeding at least 50km/h over the speed limit, the police have the power to impound the vehicle and impose a temporary suspension of your driving licence in France.
If you are in a hire car, and the fine is received by the hire company, you will normally be debited for the fine, which the hire company will pay. In other cases, if you have unpaid fines registered to one of their vehicles, you may find them unwilling to rent to you again.
Where a motorist is unable to pay (for whatever reason) then if they own a property in France they may be given a written notice to pay the fine.
If they have no address, the vehicle can be held until the fine is paid. In the event of non-payment it can be impounded and sold, although once again this is only likely to happen in the most serious cases.
Where the offence is minor, during a busy holiday period it is not unusual for a motorist to be simply be given a verbal warning by the officer.
Caught by Camera
Within Europe, an exchange of information agreement is in place, under which Member States agree to provide each other with the owner details of the vehicle.
Although the UK (along with Ireland and Denmark) initially opted out of the agreement, they eventually signed up to it in May 2017 - The Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) (Amendment) Regulations 2017. Whether it continues after Brexit remains to the seen.
Under the procedure, once the owner's name and address are known, a letter to the presumed offender can be sent to him/her by the authorities in the country where the offence was committed.
If the offender refuses to pay up, or simply denies the offence, it is a matter for the Member State concerned to determine what action should be taken.
In theory, they can transfer the papers to the owner's home country for them to institute recovery procedures. However, these stop short of legal action as the home country has no legal jurisdiction. Whilst there exists some cross-border jurisdiction and collaboration for serious criminal offence, this does not exist in relation to driving and other minor offences.
It is theoretically possible for a French court to condemn an offender in another country, but the costs of bringing such an action would outweigh the proceeds of the punishment and would be difficult to enforce.
One of the problems of enforcement is identifying the driver of the vehicle, who may not be the owner. In the absence of clear identification of the offender, or an admission by them, no fine can be imposed. Only for the most serious offences is it likely that some form of legal action will be pursued.
In addition, there is also evidence that many countries (including the UK) are somewhat tardy in replying to exchange of information requests. We have heard from several readers who received notice of an offence many months after it was committed.
Not only are there problems of enforceability, but the regulations do not cover all offences. Only eight offences are contained in the directive:
• Not using a seat-belt
• Not stopping at a red traffic light or other mandatory stop signal
• Drink driving
• Driving under the influence of drugs
• Not wearing a safety helmet (for motorcyclists)
• Using a forbidden lane
• Illegally using a mobile phone, or any other communications device, while driving.
This list notably excludes parking offences, for which non-resident drivers will continue to go unpunished.
In the end, therefore, the Directive amounts to no more than a system of cross-border exchange of information, the limitations of which were clearly evident to the EU Commission, for within the introductory text of the regulation itself defeat is as much admitted:
'However, due to a lack of appropriate procedures .... sanctions in the form of financial penalties for certain road traffic offences are often not enforced.... This Directive aims to ensure that even in such cases, the effectiveness of the investigation of road safety related traffic offences should be ensured.......... A more efficient cross-border exchange....... may increase the deterrent effect and induce more cautious behaviour by the driver.........'