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Maximum fines for traffic offences to rise — but will it have any effect in practice?

Means-testing of fines already sets practical limits

The maximum fines for many traffic offences may be about to rise under new proposals from the Ministry of Justice. The changes, which will only affect England and Wales, would see the maximum fine that a magistrates court can impose increase from £5,000 to an unlimited amount.

For many common offences, the maximum would rise from £2,500 to £10,000. These level four fines, include offences such as being over the alcohol limit while in charge of a vehicle and driving with defective brakes or tyres.

Other offences such as dangerous parking, failing to comply with traffic signs and using a mobile phone would also see increased maximum fines.

The proposals will also give magistrates the power to impose unlimited fines for offences that currently have a maximum of £5,000. Such level five fines can be imposed as part of the penalty for drink driving, careless or dangerous driving and failing to stop after a crash.

However, fines for offences covered by the new guidelines are already set according to the culprit’s ability to pay, so it’s not clear what effect the changes would have in practice.

For example, for the most severe examples of careless driving, sentencing guidelines give a range of fines of 125–175% of the driver’s weekly income after tax and national insurance. Under the proposed changes, magistrates would in theory be able to impose an unlimited fine, but in practice someone on an average wage would still be fined a few hundred pounds.

The BBC reports that Justice Minister Jeremy Wright said financial penalties “set at the right level” were an effective punishment for offenders.

“Magistrates are the cornerstone of our justice system and these changes will provide them with greater powers to deal with the day-to-day offences that impact their local communities,” he said.

With fines already set, cycling charity CTC believes bans are a better mechanism for road law enforcement. Rhia Weston, CTC road safety campaigner said: “Although the Government’s intention to get tougher on bad drivers is welcome, raising fines is not the best strategy  – magistrates can already impose fines of up to £5000 for certain motoring offences, yet average fines don’t come anywhere close to the maximum. In 2013, the average fine for careless driving was just £160.

"More and longer driving bans are a much better means of punishing offenders and protecting other road users. Much wider use of bans would also reinforce the message that driving is a privilege that can be taken away.”

The penalties for level three offences, which include dangerous parking and using a mobile phone while driving, will also increase. The maximum fine for those would increase from 1,000 to £4,000.

It’s perhaps surprising that using a mobile hasn’t been upgraded to level four or five given recent studies indicating that texting at the wheel is more dangerous than being over the alcohol limit.

Increases to lower-level penalties are likely to have even less impact as there are so few that even the Ministry of Justice has been scrabbling to find examples. The maximum fine for a level one offence will rise £200 to £800, for example, but the the official Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines lists no level 1 offences. The only one anyone seems to have been able to find is that widespread scourge of our times "unauthorised cycle racing on public ways". It’s mentioned in every mainstream media story on this proposal and we suspect therefore comes from an MoJ press release.

Level two offences, for which the maximum fine would increase from £500 to £2,000, include seatbelt offences and failing to wear a motorbike helmet.

John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.

He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.

Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc founder Tony Farrelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.

John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.

He joined road.cc in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

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