A European directive has come into force aiming to introduce cross-border fines for driving offences, but in practice the impact seems likely to be very limited.
The new Directive 2011/82/EU has been an idea that has been in gestation within the Europe for over 50 years.
The problem the authorities are trying to tackle is not a minor one, for, according to the EU Commission, while non-resident drivers represent around 5% of the road users in the EU, they commit around 15% of the offences.
The birth of this final expression of their collective will has not been easy, and it shows in the final result that has been achieved, a compromise that has fallen far short of the aspirations of the EU Commission.
The impact of the measure is reduced by the fact that Ireland, Denmark and the United Kingdom have chosen to opt out of it, so residents of these countries are unaffected.
The United Kingdom has done so on the basis of the costs of implementing the legislation and objections on grounds of breach of privacy.
Even without their participation, there are also doubts as to whether the new directive will have any major impact due to the problems of enforceability.
Under the new regulations those countries in the EEA have mutual access to each other's vehicle registration data to trace the owner of a vehicle where a driving offence has been committed by a non-resident driver.
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 jurisdisction.
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.
Accordingly, in the absence of a European wide judicial system, and a uniform set of driving offences and punishments, cross-border fines are impossible to enforce.
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 be difficult to enforce.
One of the problems of enforcement is actually 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.
France already has in place bilateral agreements with Luxembourg and Belgium, but these amount to no more than the dispatch of letters to the owner of the vehicle. There are no recovery procedures in place.
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.........'
Not So Fast!
Nevertheless, before non-resident drivers believe that they can continue to drive through France with impunity, it needs to be remembered that this procedure is in place for automatic offences that occur (such as a speed trap), not those offences where the driver is stopped by a police officer.
In France the police and gendarmes have the power of summary on-the-spot fines, which was used to great effect in southern France this summer when teams of gendarmes and police set up speed checks on a number of the autoroutes.
In addition, where a driver is caught speeding at least 50kph over the speed limit, the police have the power to impound the vehicle and impose a temporary suspension of your driving licence in France, as some drivers in the famous 'Gumball' rally have found to their cost!
If you are in a hire car, and the fine is received by the hire company, then 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.
Contrary to popular rumour there is no evidence that immigration officials are armed with information on vehicles that have unpaid fines and driving offences lodged against them. However, if you are involved in an accident in France, or stopped by police for an offence, then it is likely they will have access to recent records of your former offence, assuming you are driving the same vehicle.
In addition, at the assistance of the European Commission, there is to be a further major review of the effectiveness of this Directive in 2016, with a view to strengthening the powers of control and with it greater integration of sanctions and jurisprudence.