Yesterday, 12 January 2014, the BBC News website ran a story stating that ‘Spies are to be allowed to speed under changes to the UK motoring laws.’
The piece explained that MI5 and MI6 officers, who currently have to abide by the rules of the road, e.g. not speed, not run red traffic lights etc., will soon be granted the same exemptions as police officers and other emergency services staff.
Why the need for the change?
Well under the current system, as the article states, MI5 and MI6 officers must abide by the road traffic laws. This means that, for example, where national security is at risk and a chauffeur needs to drive Judi Dench back to MI5 as quickly as possible, or Bond needs to drive carelessly to impress a lady, they have two choices, a) break the speed limit and drive carelessly, or b) drive at 30mph and risk the world ending.
(On a policy point, it is plainly sensible that MI5 and MI6 officers have the same exemptions as the police, who are permitted to break the law in certain circumstances.)
The current situation
If the driver chooses option a), he or she is in line for some penalty points (or more), a fine disqualification from driving (depending on the seriousness of their transgression).
For a wide number of offences, the courts have the ability to disqualify drivers if they deem in appropriate (known as discretionary disqualification). For a number of offences, the court must disqualify the driver (known as obligatory disqualification).
If the driver has other points on their licence, they may be in line for disqualification via the totting up procedure (where a driver has 12 points or more on their licence).
Can they be excused?
The courts have the ability to ‘excuse’ a driver from disqualification where their offence is one which carries obligatory disqualification
The power is under Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 s 34 and courts can choose not to disqualify, or disqualify for a period less than the period determined by statute, a driver who has committed an offence carrying obligatory disqualification. This is called finding special reasons.
The test which the court must apply comes from a case from the 1950s; R v Wickins.
Wickins held that a special reason must:
- be a mitigating or extenuating circumstance,
- not amount to a defence in law,
- be directly connected to the offence, and
- be a matter which the court ought properly take into account.
Of course not every mitigating feature will amount to a special reason.
Failing to provide a specimen of breath – it is highly unlikely that special reasons will be established for this offence (i.e. dont bank on it)
Driving a very short distance – this can be a special reason, but it would be unusual.
Driving at the request of a policeman – this can be a special reason but only in limited circumstances.
Driving not impaired by alcohol (e.g. you were driving over the limit but there was nothing wrong with your driving) – this cannot be special reason (for obvious reasons).
Driving in an emergency – this can be a special reason but only in limited circumstances.
Driving in a medical emergency – this can be a special reason
Personal hardship – this cannot be a special reason (it does not relate to the offence)
Ignorance of the law – this cannot be a special reason (think of everyone trying it on!)
Drink was laced (the offence of drink driving) – this can be a special reason
So there are some examples – the circumstances in which special reasons can be found are (sensibly) narrow. As for Bond and Judi Dench, they would probably get away with it under the ‘driving in an emergency’ category, but the reasons for extending the exemptions to them seem like common sense.