Legal Questions and Guesses


This page, which first appeared on 23 March 2002, shows genuine questions which I have been asked on road traffic law (sometimes indirectly, through an e-mail discussion forum) and my guesses at the answers. I have paraphrased the wording of some of the questions, for clarity.


  1. I have no legal qualifications whatsoever, just easy access to a number of legal sources, and some familiarity and experience in finding my way around. My guesses below should not be relied upon without careful checking and further research. Please contact us if you spot any mistakes.

  2. I am not a free legal service, and do not undertake to guess the answer to all questions, although if time allows I may look into those which I find interesting.

  3. Guesses may become (even more) incorrect due to changes in the law, so I've included the dates on which I made my guesses.

  4. I make frequent reference to Acts and Statutory Instruments as published here on behalf of the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI). Be warned that the OPSI site shows Acts and SIs as originally published, before any amendments, so that what you read there may have been amended since publication.

  1. Accident, need to stop
  2. Learner's supervisor has only automatic licence
  3. Learner's supervisor is drunk (or more than one supervisor)
  4. Learner's supervisor is in rear of car
  5. Lighting up time, moving motor vehicle
  6. Lamps, use of front fog lamps
  7. Lamps, use of side-lamps
  8. Overtaking at Zebra etc crossings
  9. Reflective studs ("cats' eyes"), blue
  10. Speed limit repeater signs, spacing
  11. Period of grace for tax discs
  12. Towing, motorcycle by a car

Accidents, need to stop
QuestionIf a cyclist swerves to avoid a car, and the cyclist falls, but the car didn't actually hit the cyclist, does the car driver have to stop etc?
WhyThe requirement to stop after an accident and exchange details etc is at section 170 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. Subsection (1), as amended by paragraphs 72(2) of schedule 4 to the Road Traffic Act 1991, and by regulation 2(6) of the Motor Vehicles (Compulsory Insurance) Regulations 2000, states:
"This section applies in a case where, owing to the presence of a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place, an accident occurs by which -

(a) personal injury is caused to a person other than the driver of that motor vehicle, or

(b) damage is caused -

     (i) to a vehicle other than that mechanically propelled vehicle or a trailer drawn by that mechanically propelled vehicle, or

     (ii) to an animal other than an animal in or on that mechanically propelled vehicle or a trailer drawn by that mechanically propelled vehicle, or

     (iii) to any other property constructed on, fixed to, growing in or otherwise forming part of the land on which the road or place in question is situated or land adjacent to such land."
The first point to note is that "accident" is not defined in the Road Traffic Act 1988. So whether or not an accident has taken place is a matter for the courts. My guess is that if, as a result of swerving to avoid a car, a cyclists falls off her cycle, then the courts would say that there had been an accident, even though there was no collision.

The second point to note is that the driver needs to stop etc if the accident is "owing to the presence of" the car on the road. If a cyclist is swerving to avoid a car, then I'm pretty sure that will count as "owing to the presence of" the car on the road. The fact that there is no collision is not relevant here.

Learner's supervisor has only automatic licence
QuestionCan a supervising driver (over 21, licence for 3 years, etc) who has only a car (automatic) licence, supervise a provisional licence holder driving a manual vehicle?
GuessNo. Basically, a supervisor must have a licence for the class of vehicle being driven, and an automatic is a separate class. The relevant regulations are the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licence) Regulations 1999 (SI 1999/2864). This appears to apply to class of vehicle (not just to cars). The way I see it:
  • Reg 16(2)(a) says that the holder of a provisional licence must not drive other than under supervision.

  • Regs 17(1)(b) and 17(3)(c)(ii) together say that the supervisor must hold a full licence for "the same class as the vehicle being driven".

  • Reg 3(1) defines a "vehicle with automatic transmission" and one with "manual transmission" as separate classes.
However, there does appear to be an exception (for cars) if the supervisor is a disabled driver (as defined at reg 17(3)(a)). Here regs 17(1)(d) and 17(3)(c)(i) together say only that the supervisor should have any licence for Category B (other than B1 or B1 (invalid carriages)) provided s/he "would in an emergency be able to take control of the steering and braking functions" of the car. So, curiously, whereas a non-disabled driver would not be allowed to supervise a learner in a manual transmission car, a disabled driver sometimes can.

Learner's supervisor is drunk (or more than one supervisor)
QuestionWhat if there are several passengers - is it the one in the front who is automatically taken as supervising? What if the one in the front was drunk but there was another passenger who was sober and over 21 with a licence? Or one in the back was considered before an incident to be supervising?
GuessSee Learner driver, supervisor, from a rear seat as regards the law generally.

It looks to us as if the onus is on the driver to have a supervisor. There is no question of any other person present being "taken as supervising". It is simply that the driver must be able to defend a claim that he has no supervisor. I guess that that would mean that the driver should be able to demonstrate the existence of a person who was supervising at the time of driving.

I guess that it does not matter who in the car is drunk, provided it is neither the driver nor any person who is supervising.

I guess that there could be more than one supervisor. In this case, the driver need only demonstrate the existence of one of them to defend a charge of driving unsupervised; yet all of the supervisors ought to be sober (lest they be charged with drink-driving). It's clearly not sufficient that there is a sober person (over 21 etc) in the car; the driver has to be able to demonstrate the existence of a person actually supervising. I guess that if the supervisor is drunk, then the supervisor (but not the driver) has committed an offence.

This does look to be a complex area, so if anyone has other ideas, please contact us.

Learner's supervisor is in rear of car
QuestionMy Dad was my competent driver; but he was sitting in the rear. Was that legal?
GuessMost of us know the basic requirement that a learner driver must be accompanied by a qualified driver, who must be aged at least 21, and have held their licence for at least 3 years. But can they sit in the back whilst accompanying the learner, or must they always sit in the front?

At one extreme, regulation 17(1)(d) of the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) Regulations 1999 states that the only vehicle in which a disabled person may be the supervising driver is a Category B vehicle; and that they must be able in an emergency:
"to take control of the steering and braking functions of the vehicle".
So a disabled supervisor would either have to be sitting in the front or have some special controls set up in the back (legally possible, but unlikely in practice). This requirement (to be able to take control of the steering and braking) applies only to disabled supervisors.

At the other extreme, the person supervising a learner bus driver would usually not even sit alongside the driver.

Regulation 16(2)(a) requires the learner to be:
"under the supervision of a qualified driver who is present with him in or on the vehicle".
So, the regulations don't appear to say that the supervisor must sit in the front (though there may be case law on this) and the key point appears to be merely that they are "supervising".

So much for the regulations. What about case law? My copy of Butterworth's Road Traffic Service (as at June 2002) cites "Rubie v Faulkner [1940] 1 KB 571, [1940] 1 All ER 285" and "Clark v Clark 1950 SLT (Sh Ct) 68" to support the statement that the supervisor "must participate in the driving", "must be in a position in or on the vehicle to be able to take control of it if necessary", and "may in certain circumstances be 'in charge' of the vehicle and be liable to be charged with an appropriate offence contrary to the RTA 1988, ss4(2) or 5(1)(b)".

My guess is that, even for a genuine learner driver close to test standard, a driver would have some difficulty in refuting a charge of driving unsupervised if the only other person in the car is sitting in the back seat; and that you were probably committing an offence in not having a supervisor. But where the driver is very experienced, and has temporarily (perhaps following conviction for a driving offence) reverted to learner status, it may be easier to demonstrate that a diving instructor coaching in the rear seat is a supervisor. Still, if anyone has other ideas, please contact us.

Lighting-up time, moving motor vehicle
QuestionCan anyone advise the lighting up time regarding vehicles on the road please. There is nothing mentioned in the Highway Code on the matter. I seem to remember that side lights should be used from 1/2 hr after sunset until 1/2 hr before sunrise. Is this still the legal requirement?
GuessThis guess assumes that the question is about moving vehicles (as opposed to, say, parked ones) and so has a relatively easy answer:
  • The "hours of darkness" are still defined as you suggest, the time between half an hour after sunset and half an hour before sunrise.

  • However, the law has changed: it used to require that you use side-lights (and perhaps headlamps) during the hours of darkness. The requirement as to side-lights (but not headlights) has been extended to the period between and sunset and sunrise.
The relevant law is The Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989 (SI 1989/1796). Hours of darkness are defined at reg 3, and the requirement to use side-lights (called "front position lamps" and "rear position lamps" at reg 3) is at reg 24(1).

The requirements as to the use of headlamps is more complex, and set out at reg 25. Simplifying somewhat, you must use them during the hours of darkness unless on a road which has a 30mph speed limit by virtue of street lamps (ie a "restricted road") and the lamps are lit.

A couple of extra points to note:
  • Reg 25(3): "For the purposes of this regulation a headlamp shall not be regarded as lit if its intensity is reduced by a dim-dip device".

  • A motorway isn't a restricted road, and so, even where it is well lit and carries a 30mph speed limit, you must normally use headlamps between sunset and sunrise (though side-lights would do for the half an hour before and after this period). To verify that a motorway is not a restricted road, see s161(1) of and para 59(4) of sch 8 to the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991.
And you're right about the Highway Code, inasmuch as it just says "at night". As is so often the case, HC is less than exact when it comes to road traffic law. In fact, it gets worse over time. Editions before 1993 (available here) at least defined "hours of darkness".

Lamps, use of front fog lamps
QuestionWhat is the legal situation regarding the use of low slung fog/spotlights used in addition to or instead of dipped headlights either during the daytime or at night when visibility is good. I can find little reference to this issue in the reading material I have got other than 'low slung fog lights can be used instead of headlights in fog or falling snow'.
My guessThe restrictions on the use of front fog lamps are set out in the table within regulation 27 of The Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989, SI (1989) 1796. Item No 2 of the table says the front fog lamps must not "be lit at any time other than in conditions of seriously reduced visibility". In fact, there's a similar prohibition on the use of rear fog lamps at Item No 3 of the table.

The interesting point is, what is a "front fog lamp" for this purpose? I have a vague recollection of it once having been defined as a white or yellow lamp at the front of the vehicle at a height of not more than 0.5m. Perhaps I was dreaming - I will investigate when I get time.

The current definition is in the table at regulation 3, where it is defined as "A lamp used to improve the illumination of the road in front of a motor vehicle in conditions of seriously reduced visibility". Now, this is indeed a curious definition. Suppose you buy a new car and insist that it come with the manufacturer's optional front fog lamps. The saleswoman delivers the car, and explains where the front fog lamp is, and where the switch is. All is confirmed in the owner's manual. Suppose you then use the lamps in good visibility, because you think they look 'cool'. Then are they still fog lamps? Perhaps not, as they are not being "used to improve the illumination of the road in front of a motor vehicle in conditions of seriously reduced visibility" (because, obviously, visibility is not seriously reduced).

Or is it more subtle? Perhaps it is a fog lamp, because the manufacturer, saleswoman, owner's manual and your wallet say so; that is their stated purpose in the manufacture's advertising literature; and that is how the lamps are normally used; so that's what they are for the purpose of r3. If that is the case, then if they happen to be used in another situation (eg that suggested above) they don't stop being fog lamps just because you switch then on, and become fog lamps again just because you switch them off - they remain fog lamps, and their use as above is an offence under r27.

So, do front fog lamps cease to be front fog lamps when used as for some other purpose? My guess is not, and that their use other than in conditions of seriously reduced visibility is illegal. Now, how does the driver's manual describe those low slung lamps on the front of my car? Fog lamps? Driving lamps?

Lamps, use of side-lamps
QuestionI was accustomed to using side-lights in low-level light conditions, where it was overkill to use headlights, but sufficiently dark to merit some sort of lighting. However, I was told that it was not legal to use side-lights while moving, unless (as in the case of Volvos) they came on automatically. Is this true and, if so, should I opt for less visibility (I have a black car) with no lights, or annoying oncoming drivers by using headlamps?
My guessThere is no law against the use of side-lights when moving (or stationary).

Overtaking at Zebra etc crossings
QuestionWhat's the law about overtaking on the zig-zag approach to Zebra crossings? May I overtake cyclists?
GuessThe law is set out in the Zebra, Pelican and Puffin Crossings Regulations 1997 (SI 1997/2400) at regulation 24. It says (in essence) that, on the zig-zag approach to a Zebra, Pelican of Puffin crossing, you must not overtake the leading moving motor vehicle, or the leading vehicle stopped to give way to a pedestrian (and here by "leading" I mean "nearest the crossing"). Now let's consider the detail.

Reg 24(1) says that the restriction against overtaking applies only to a "motor vehicle". So, if you are on a cycle, or a horse, or even a horse and cart, it does not stop you from overtaking on the zig-zag approach.

Reg 24(1) also says "... within the limits of a controlled area and is proceeding towards the crossing ...". So, it applies only when driving towards the crossing. Once past the crossing, you may overtake again, even if you are still in the zig-zag area. This is sensible enough, as the reason for restricting overtaking is the danger to pedestrians who may be on the crossing and who you can't see because of the vehicle you are overtaking. Now, a warped mind might ask "What if you are reversing towards the crossing from the other side?" My guess is that this is "within the limits of a controlled area" (if there are zig-zags on the other side too) and is "proceeding towards the crossing", so that it would apply here too.

Reg 3(1) defines a "controlled area" generally as a "Pelican controlled area, a Puffin controlled area or a Zebra controlled area". So, it looks like the law doesn't apply to Toucan crossings. As you might guess, the controlled areas are the parts extending from the start (away from the crossing) of the zig-zags to the edge of the crossing itself (on each side of the crossing) as explained at reg 6(2) and sch 4 (or at reg 6(1) and sch 1 for the Zebra). One exception (explained at para 10(1) of sch 1) is for a Zebra crossing on a road less than 6m wide: here the zig-zags may be replaced with a hazard warning line (as shown at diagram 1004, 1004.1 of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 (SI 2002/3113)) and the controlled area runs from the start of the hazard line (let's hope the council haven't painted a hazard line along the full length of the road) and the rules against overtaking still apply.

Reg 24(1) doesn't use the word "overtake", but the more precise phrase that the driver "shall not cause it or any part of it" to "pass ahead of the foremost part of" the other vehicle. There's two points here. The easiest to see is that, if you are starting to pass (say) a slower moving car on the zig-zag approach, you may get almost to the front of it, but mustn't let the front of your car nudge ahead of the front of the other car. Less obvious is something that follows from the words "it or any part of it". Suppose you are overtaking a slower car on the zig-zag approach, but there's another car in front of it also on the approach. Then you can start your overtake. You get almost completely past that car, but the car in front is now over the crossing. So the car you've almost past is now the leading moving motor vehicle. At this point, because you must not let any part of your car pass the front of that car, your speed must not now exceed the speed of the other car (and so you mustn't complete the overtake).

Note the distinction that reg 24(1)(a) is about overtaking a moving motor vehicle, whereas reg 24(1)(b) is about overtaking a stationary vehicle. So, going back to the original question, you may overtake cyclists (and other non-motor vehicles) on the zig-zag approach provided they are still moving. If they have stopped to give way to a pedestrian, you mustn't overtake the leading vehicle; so if there's a queue of stationary traffic stopped to give way, then you can overtake them all except the front one (whatever sort of vehicle that is).

Note also that this distinction (that the requirement against overtaking the leading moving vehicle applies only to the leading moving motor vehicle) is lost in the Highway Code's simplification at rule 167. It is sadly common for the Highway Code to over-simplify legal points. Eg, the 1996 edition had similarly incorrect text in rule 71, but did at least state the correct position in the small print on page 69 (under "Road Traffic Law"). This section was severely cut back in the latest version of the Highway Code.

And finally, the phrase used above "the leading vehicle which has stopped to give way to a pedestrian". Those are my words. The law is in terms of a vehicle which has stopped so as to comply with reg 23, 25, or 26. Reg 23 is for a vehicle which has stopped to comply with a red light (but only a red one) at a Pelican or Puffin crossing, though reg 26 adds the flashing amber phase at a pelican crossing. Reg 25 is for a vehicle stopped to give precedence to a pedestrian on an uncontrolled Zebra crossing (uncontrolled, mind, so the rule does not apply if a traffic warden or uniformed constable is controlling the traffic on it). So, if a vehicle has stopped on the zig-zag approach because it's waiting to turn, or for the driver to do some shopping, it doesn't count. If there are several vehicles stopped in the zig-zag approach for various reasons, you mustn't overtake the leading one which has stopped to give way to a pedestrian (in the sense above) but may pass the others.

Reflective studs ("cats' eyes"), blue
QuestionI've heard that blue cats' eyes (ie reflective studs) are used where motorways merge. Is this correct?
GuessNo. The only colours used for reflective studs on UK roads, as far as I know, are white, red, amber and green, although the body of the stud placed temporarily at road works may be a fluorescent green/yellow.

The colours are specified at regulation 31(7) of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 (SI 2002/3113) which came into force on 31.1.2003. Before that the same colours were specified at regulation 28(7) of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 1994 (SI 1994/1519) which came into force on 12.8.1994; and before that the same colours were specified at regulation 25(3) of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 1981 (SI 1981/859) which came into force on 13.8.1981, superseding the 1975 regulations (which, I regret, I don't have a copy of).

Speed limit repeater signs, spacing
QuestionIs the spacing of repeaters only a recommendation? So one could not challenge the viability of a limit where there were no repeaters, or they were incorrectly spaced?
GuessYes, the spacing of repeater signs is no longer set out in law, except that they should be at "regular intervals". So one can no longer challenge their effect on the grounds that they are more than the required distance apart.

The position is explained in "Traffic Advisory Leaflet 01/95: Speed Limit Signs", issued by the Department for Transport. This says, in effect, that:
  • There is a legal requirement that repeaters be placed at "regular intervals".

  • There is no legal requirement about spacing of repeater signs, although there used to be.

  • The requirement about spacing was removed to "overcome the situation where signs placed marginally too far apart have had the effect of making the limit unenforceable".

  • The leaflet sets out guidance as to the placing of signs.
The legal requirement that speed limit repeater signs be placed at "regular intervals" is at direction 11(2) of The Traffic Signs General Directions 2002 (SI 2002/3113) which came into force on 31.1.2003. Before that the applicable direction was direction 10(1) of The Traffic Signs General Directions 1994 (SI 1994/1519) which came into force on 12.8.1994 and said the same thing (ie "regular intervals"). Prior to that the requirements were at directions 6 and 7 of the Traffic Signs (Speed Limits) Regulations 1969, part of the Traffic Signs (Speed Limits) Regulations and General Directions 1969, SI 1969 No. 1487.

Now, whilst there are no longer specific spacing requirements for repeater signs, they must still be placed at "regular intervals", and there is clear guidance in the Traffic Advisory Leaflet. It would be for the courts to decide, case by case, whether signs had been so placed. Where on an unlit road the highway authority hadn't bothered to place repeater signs for mile after mile, I guess that the courts would say that the repeater signs had not been placed as required, so that the speed limit in law is the National Speed Limit.

Period of grace for tax discs
QuestionWhat period of grace do I have for the display of a tax disc?
GuessUntil August 2008, none. But nowadays we can buy our tax discs online. What happens if they are delayed in the post?

Well, if you buy online, and you make a valid application (no mistakes, correct payment on time etc) then there is no requirement to display the new disc for the first 5 working days of the month. Eg for a tax disc starting January 2011, New Years Day falls on a Saturday, so that 3 January is a Bank Holiday, and the first working day is Tuesday 4 January, and the fifth working day is Monday 10 January, and so there is no requirement to display the disc until the following day, Tuesday 11 January 2011. This much is confirmed by the government themselves at (a copy of which I have saved here in anticipation of its eventual removal from the government website).

The law requiring the display of a valid tax disc is at section 33 of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994. This was amended by section 147 of the Finance Act 2008 from 21.7.2008 (the date on which the latter Act received Royal Assent). In particular, this inserts various new subsections into section 33. The first new subsection, s33(1B), reads
"A person is not guilty of an offence ... during any of the 5 working days following the time when a licence ... ceases to be in force, if an application for a licence ... to run from that time has been received before that time."
The second of the new subsections, s33(1C), reads
"In subsection (1B) "working day" means any day other than - (a) a Saturday or Sunday, or (b) a day which is Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Good Friday or a bank holiday under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 in any part of the United Kingdom."
Now, this it where it gets particularly interesting. With 1 January 2011 falling on a Saturday, Monday 3 January 2011 is a bank holiday throughout the UK, but Tuesday 4 January 2011 is also a bank holiday in Scotland - which is still part of the United Kingdom. Consider the wording " ... a bank holiday under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 in any part of the United Kingdom" and ask yourself whether Tuesday 4 January 2001 a bank holiday in Scotland "under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971"?

Sadly, no: where 2 January falls on a Sunday, then Monday 3 January is a Bank Holiday in Scotland, and this is indeed a consequence of the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 (at paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 to that Act) whereas there is no similar provision where 2 January falls on a Saturday. In the latter case, Monday 4 January does indeed becomes a bank holiday in Scotland, but by Royal Proclamation. You can't beat tradition, can you?

Towing, motorcycle by a car
QuestionIs it legal to tow a motorcycle with a car?
GuessYes, as there is no specific prohibition against doing so. There are a couple of restrictions, however, imposed by the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986:
  • Reg 86 requires that if a vehicle is towed by means of a rope or chain, then the maximum distance between the vehicle and trailer must not exceed 4.5m (1.5m if the rope/chain is not made "clearly visible to any other person using the road within a reasonable distance from either side").

  • (Perhaps more amusingly) reg 90 has the effect that, if you want to carry passengers on the motorcycle for hire or reward, you must not exceed 30mph.

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