The penalty points system
Drivers convicted under the Road Traffic Offenders Act of 1988 will generally receive not only a fine and possible prison term, but also an endorsement to their licence in the form of penalty points. The system was introduced with the intention of deterring repeat offences, and also so that the effect of the traffic court's actions in reducing offending could be observed in practice. Most developed countries now have a similar system in operation.
What offences attract penalty points?
The obvious example is speeding, which typically involves three points, but this number increases if the speed was greatly in excess of the limit. Most offences involving a motor vehicle, such as failing to obey traffic signals, and also 'construction and use' offences such as having defective brakes or steering, also incur penalty points.
Totting up and time limits
The points received on a licence are accumulated in a system known as 'totting up', which can eventually lead to disqualification from driving, usually after twelve points have accrued. Penalty points remain on a driver's licence for four years from the date of conviction for most offences, such as speeding, but only offences committed within three years are totted up. (For more serious offences, such as those involving drink or drugs, the points stay on the licence for eleven years.)
Fixed penalty offence
A driving offence (such as speeding) which is dealt with by the police using the fixed penalty system will also carry a fixed number of penalty points. However, a driver who already has over eight points on their licence (and would therefore be in danger of disqualification if they received three more) should not be dealt with by means of a fixed penalty, and the fixed penalty notice makes this clear.
Disqualification - the exceptions
Although the courts are required to disqualify a driver who has incurred twelve or more current penalty points, they do have discretion to waive this if the loss of a driving licence would cause 'exceptional hardship'. This term has generally been interpreted to mean loss of livelihood, though cases where, for example, a separated parent was unable to visit his children have also sometimes succeeded. Predictably, this legal issue has been much argued in court by celebrity lawyers and there have been some surprising results. However, there are some offences, such as causing death by dangerous driving, where the court does not have this discretion.
Disputing penalty points - is it worth it?
A driver who has been offered a fixed penalty as an alternative to a court appearance does have the option of attending court and contesting the case. Most do not, because it is time-consuming and potentially expensive, and also because the court will have the option of imposing a heavier penalty. However, some motorists will come to regret accepting penalty points which they could have avoided, if later events put them at risk of disqualification.