Opinion – Will Foreign Drivers Continue Getting Away with Breaking the Law?

  • March 8, 2024

Ellen Townsend – Policy Director

Almost ten years ago, after years of legal wrangling, the EU finally did a deal on a law that would enable Member States to enforce traffic offences committed by foreign-registered drivers across borders. 

It was a big deal, especially for countries with a lot of tourist or transit traffic.  However, the first law was fairly limited in scope and only applied to a handful of offences.  So ETSC welcomed a proposal from the European Commission last year to increase the coverage to include not just speeding and drink-driving, but also other dangerous behaviours such as wrong-way driving and overloading a vehicle.  MEPs in the European Parliament sensibly called for the offence of fleeing the scene of a crash, or ‘hit and run’ to be added in addition.   

But in a meeting on 6 February, EU legislators representing the European Commission, Parliament and Member States failed to do a final deal on the new law.  Unfortunately, the reasons seem to be more about politics in an EU election year, than about making an important contribution to road safety.  With little time left before the end of this Commission and Parliament’s mandate, ETSC wants policymakers to redouble their efforts to do a deal before it’s too late.  They will meet again on 12 March to try and work out an agreement.

The sticking point is over whether the legislation can be used for enforcement of ‘Urban Vehicle Access Regulations’ (UVARs) such as the Stockholm congestion charge, or the Brussels low emissions zone (which bans the most polluting vehicles).  Clearly some politicians in the European Parliament do not like such instruments, and the European Commissioner for transport has said the CBE directive should only be used for road safety.  We think the MEPs are using wrong-headed arguments, and that the Commissioner’s view goes against the principles of better regulation and the need to integrate environmental concerns in all EU legislation.

Firstly safety.  Congestion charges reduce motor vehicle traffic, that is their purpose.  Reducing the number of motor vehicles circulating reduces risk exposure to those vehicles, and consequently, harm is reduced.  Evidence from Stockholm shows that is exactly what happens.  Fewer cars = safer streets.  

While the safety link may be less straightforward for low emissions zones, these can also reduce traffic, especially as they are often accompanied by other measures which discourage motor vehicles from entering city centres, as is the case in Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.  Motorists have also been offered incentives to give up their car, such as a free public transport pass.

The problem with the view of some MEPs, and the European Commissioner for transport is this: what is the alternative to including UVARs in the cross-border enforcement directive?   If the alternative is a separate law on cross-border enforcement of UVARs, that will take years, result in even more regulation and, in the meantime, allow millions of drivers to get away without paying penalties for abuse.

Secondly their view of the directive is too narrow.  Limiting cross-border enforcement only to dangerous driving, and not to measures like congestion charges that also reduce exposure to motor vehicles for vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists, is a missed opportunity. 

Finally, this whole discussion must be viewed from the point of view of fairness.  The current situation, where foreign drivers can get away with committing offences while locals are sanctioned, is unjustifiable. 

If the debate over UVARs ends up destroying the chance of a deal on this legislation, then the result will be ongoing impunity for several dangerous driving offences not currently covered as well as a failure to integrate safety and sustainability goals in one piece of legislation – which is the smart thing to do.