Penalty points are dished out to drivers when they are caught committing motoring offences – anything from speeding or using their phone behind the wheel to driving uninsured.
Points usually come with a fine, and there are usually knock-on implications for the price of a driver's annual car insurance policy in the long run.
For most people, having six to nine points might be considered on the naughty side. After all, 12 points usually means a ban.
However, a freedom of information request from the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) has revealed that there are thousands of motorists on UK roads who are driving with points totals far in excess of 12. In fact, the IAM discovered that a man from Liverpool who’d managed to acquire 45 penalty points is still legally driving.
IAM chief executive Simon Best said: “Incredibly, we now have someone driving with 45 points. The DVLA must rapidly overhaul their systems and working relationships with the courts to ensure that the whole principle of 12 points and you are off the road is not undermined.”
The HM Courts and Tribunal Service maintains that the majority of motorists who accumulate 12 points or more are banned, and it’s at a magistrate’s discretion whether or not a driver can carry on. Elsewhere a DVLA spokesman said that the organisation was simply “a record-keeper to control information”.
So, how are these drivers getting off?
“The usual mitigation is ‘exceptional hardship’ towards an innocent third party,” says Jonathan Wilkins, a partner at Cardiff solicitors Grech Gooden, and an expert on traffic cases. “For instance, if a driver were to be banned, unable to get to work and subsequently miss his mortgage payments, leaving his family homeless; or if a driver had elderly relatives who relied on them to get back and forth to hospital appointments. It’s up to the magistrate to listen to evidence and decide. Just losing your job isn’t enough.”
‘Exceptional hardship’ it seems, is often difficult to prove.
Last year, Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding was banned from driving after clocking up 12 points. She enlisted the help of Nick Freeman – the self-proclaimed ‘Mr Loophole’ lawyer who’s renowned for getting celebrities and footballers off driving raps.
Harding claimed she would endure ‘exceptional hardship’ by having to get public transport about London because of her celebrity status. But even Freeman’s legal prowess couldn’t keep her on the road. “The case is only as good as the evidence provided,” says Wilkins. In the case of Harding, it clearly wasn’t.
While you’d be forgiven for thinking that the rich and famous are most likely to benefit in these sorts of cases, having plenty of cash in the bank doesn’t always help. “I recall a case where a high-profile celebrity pleaded that charities he did work with would miss out if he was banned – but the judge ruled that he could afford a driver,” says Wilkins.
Even if a convicted driver manages to stay on the road, they would still have to deal with big fines imposed by the magistrate. Then there’s the prospect of actually finding an insurer willing to take them on - an uphill task in itself. “Most insurers will see such big accumulations of points as an accident waiting to happen, so a specialist insurer might be the only way to go,” reckons Scott Kelly, car insurance expert at Gocompare.com.
What do YOU think? Should 12 points mean a definite ban or should magistrates carry on using their discretion? Let us know on Twitter.