Busting driving myths: dangerous vs careless driving

Whether you’re still thinking about making some new year’s resolutions, or you’re not really into the whole ‘new year, new me’ movement, it’s never a bad idea to start thinking about ditching some of those bad habits – in this case, the bad driving habits you’ve picked up.

While the Highway Code might not be a popular night-time reading choice for many - it certainly hasn’t been on my night stand since I passed my driving theory test over a decade ago - the rules and regulations for drivers can be updated at any time, so it’s important to stay in the know.

We have all accumulated bad driving habits over the years (eating, texting, and daydreaming are just a few examples of common driving distractions), but a lot of drivers don’t know legal fact from fiction when it comes to the Highway Code.

Do you know the differences between dangerous and careless driving, and what the penalties are for either? Or when a “bad habit” is more than just a bad habit?

We’ve put together a list of some of the worst habits UK drivers have and their potential repercussions to help you learn the law, clear up some driving myths, and help break those bad driving habits for good!

 

Dangerous driving

According to the Road Traffic Act 1988, the offence of dangerous driving occurs when driving a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place without due care or attention, or without reasonable consideration for others. Committed in cases where “driving falls far below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver and it would be obvious that driving in that way would be dangerous”. Danger here is defined as “danger either of injury to any person or of serious damage to property”.

 Some typical examples of dangerous driving are:

  • Racing, driving aggressively, or driving too fast
  • Overtaking dangerously
  • Ignoring road signs or traffic lights
  • Driving under the influence of drink or drugs (including prescription drugs)
  • Driving when unfit, including having an injury, being unable to see clearly, not taking prescribed drugs, or being sleepy
  • Knowing the vehicle being driven has a dangerous fault or an unsafe load
  • The driver being avoidably and dangerously distracted

Cases of dangerous driving where other drivers are at risk of harm will always be sentenced in court. These incidents might have been witnessed by a police officer, a passer-by or another road user, or have resulted in a collision.

 Less severe dangerous driving offences may be referred to as careless driving.

 

Careless driving

Driving without due care and attention, also known as careless or inconsiderate driving, is more than just bad driving habits. The Road Traffic Act 1988 states that a careless driving offence occurs when the driver falls below the minimum standard expected of a competent and careful driver.

Careless driving occurs when you drive in a way that is inconsiderate to other people. While this behaviour may inconvenience others, it doesn’t include situations where others are at risk of harm, as this would fall under dangerous driving.

Some common examples of careless or inconsiderate driving are:

  • Driving too close to or turning into the path of another vehicle
  • Overtaking on the inside
  • Driving through a red light by mistake
  • Misusing lights
    • flashing lights to force another driver to give way
    • dazzling other drivers with un-dipped headlights
  • Misusing lanes to “gain advantage” over other drivers
  • Unnecessarily staying in an overtaking lane
  • Unnecessarily slow driving or braking
  • The driver being avoidably distracted

 

Penalties for dangerous and careless driving 

The penalties faced can vary depend on which offence has been committed. These can range from fines and points on your license to driving bans and even possible prison sentences.

Here are the maximum penalties you could face if caught driving carelessly or dangerously in England, Scotland or Wales (the rules for Northern Ireland differ slightly):

Offence

Maximum penalties

Penalty points

Fine

Imprisonment

Disqualification

Careless and inconsiderate driving

Unlimited

X

Discretionary

3 to 9

Using a hand-held mobile phone when driving

£1,000

Increased to £2,500 for LGV & PCV

X

Discretionary

Obligatory if licence gained within 2 years

6

Using a vehicle in a dangerous condition

£2,500 fine

Becomes  unlimited for LGV & PCV

X

Discretionary.

Becomes obligatory if previous conviction for a similar offence within 3 years - minimum 6 months

3 in each case

Dangerous driving

Unlimited

2 years’ imprisonment

Obligatory

3 to 11 (if exceptionally not disqualified)

Causing death by dangerous driving

Unlimited

14 years’ imprisonment

Obligatory
(min. 2 years)

3 to 11 (if exceptionally not disqualified)

Causing death by careless driving under the influence of drink or drugs

Unlimited

14 years’ imprisonment

Obligatory
(min. 2 years)

3 to 11 (if exceptionally not disqualified)

 


 

Don’t drive distracted: when is a bad habit more than a bad habit?

In this article, when we talk about bad driving habits, we’re largely talking about avoidable distractions, many of which can result in a careless or dangerous driving charge. 

While the rules and penalties related to some of these distractions may be clear cut, for example using a hand-held mobile phone while driving, there are still many grey areas.

So let’s sort the driving laws from the fake news and debunk some of those driving myths you often see circulating social media.

 

Is it illegal to eat and drive?

No, it is not illegal to eat while driving. However, if you’re deemed not to be in proper control of your vehicle, you can be charged with careless driving, face an on-the-spot £100 fine and three penalty points.

 

Is it illegal to drink and drive?

There is no law against drinking and driving, but again, you can be charged with careless driving if you’re deemed to be distracted.

It can actually be more dangerous not to have a drink with you, as drinking while dehydrated can be just as dangerous as drink driving, leading to a loss of focus, drowsiness and slowing reaction times. If you’re off on a long journey, especially in hot weather, make sure to keep hydrated - using a sports cap bottle is best to minimise distraction.

On the subject of drink driving, surprisingly there’s no law against drinking alcohol while driving - provided of course that you are within the legal alcohol limit in the country you are driving in. Even so, we wouldn’t recommend drinking any amount of alcohol before or while driving.

 

Is it illegal to smoke in a car?

Smoking at the wheel is not illegal, but again, you could face a fine if the police believe your cigarette, cigar, or even vape is hindering your ability to drive safely.

It is illegal to smoke in a car (or any vehicle) carrying a passenger under the age of 18.

 

Is it illegal to apply makeup while driving?

While it is not specifically illegal to apply makeup while driving, it is another form of distracted driving, which, if you’re caught, can lead to a fine and penalty points.

 

Is it illegal to use a phone and drive?

It’s illegal to hold a phone while driving. In order to use your device while driving, you must have hands-free access such as Bluetooth, a dashboard holder or mat, or a windscreen mount and the device must not block your view of the road and traffic ahead. You must use voice command only.

You can only use a hand-held phone if you’re safely parked or in an emergency where you need to call 999 or 112 and it’s unsafe or impractical to stop.

According to Gov.uk, "there will be an exemption to the new law for drivers making a contactless payment using their mobile phone while stationary to ensure the law keeps pace with technology."

You must stay in full control of your vehicle at all times, and you can still be prosecuted for careless or dangerous driving if you are distracted. The law still applies if you’re stopped at traffic lights, queuing in traffic or supervising a learner driver. 


Is it illegal to use a sat nav while driving?

Similarly to using a mobile phone and driving, it is illegal to hold or adjust a sat nav while driving. You must have hands-free access, and the device must not block your view of the road and traffic ahead.

Again, the law still applies to you if you’re stopped at traffic lights, queuing in traffic or supervising a learner driver. You can get 3 penalty points if you don’t have a full view of the road and traffic ahead or proper control of the vehicle.

 

Is it illegal to have a light on in the car and drive?

Despite what you might have thought as a child, there is no law against having your internal car lights on while driving – just make sure it’s not causing a distraction.

 

Is it illegal to drive with headphones on?

There is no law that forbids you from wearing headphones while driving. However, wearing headphones can be extremely dangerous since they can reduce your awareness of what is going on around you and cause a major distraction.

 Instead, it is a lot safer to connect your phone to your car speakers via Bluetooth, aux or an adapter.

 

Is it ok to drive barefoot or in flip flops?

This is one that comes around seasonally, with sensationalist headlines like “How driving in flip flops could land you a £5,000 fine”. And, while yes, driving barefoot or in inappropriate shoes could result in a careless driving charge and the accompanying penalties, there is no specific law forbidding driving while wearing any specific type of footwear (or lack of).

The Highway Code does, however, state that before setting out on a journey in the car, it is important that "clothing and footwear do not prevent you using the controls in the correct manner”. 

Experts agree that driving barefoot, in heels, or in flip flops threatens safety and the same can be said about large hiking boots, wellies, sandals, and slippers. So, make sure you think about what you’re wearing on your feet the next time you jump in the car.

 

Can my dog sit in the passenger seat?

Personally, I can’t picture a better road trip buddy riding up front than man’s best friend, or more specifically, my best friend, my dog. While there is no rule against your dog riding shotgun, rule 57 of the Highway Code states “when in a vehicle, make sure dogs or other animals are suitably restrained so they cannot distract you while you are driving or injure you, or themselves, if you stop quickly.”

A pet seat belt harness, carrier, cage or guard are all acceptable ways of restraining animals in cars. Failing to restrain your pet correctly may also invalidate your car insurance.

While we’re on the topic of dogs, did you know that letting your pet out of the car on the hard shoulder (even if you’ve broken down) is also a careless driving offence? Failing to follow this rule (rule 56 of the Highway Code) could land you with a careless driving fine of up to £2,500.

 

Can I drive into a bus lane to let an emergency vehicle pass?

Rule 219 of the Highway Code says that, “You should look and listen for ambulances, fire engines, police, doctors or other emergency vehicles using flashing blue, red or green lights and sirens or flashing headlights, or Highways Agency Traffic Officers and Incident Support vehicles using flashing amber lights.”

The Highway Code continues, “When one approaches do not panic. Consider the route of such a vehicle and take appropriate action to let it pass, while complying with all traffic signs. If necessary, pull to the side of the road and stop, but try to avoid stopping before the brow of a hill, a bend or narrow section of road. Do not endanger yourself, other road users or pedestrians and avoid mounting the kerb. Do not brake harshly on approach to a junction or roundabout, as a following vehicle may not have the same view as you.”

Where it is safe to do so, you should always let emergency vehicles pass, however, you should always adhere to the rules of the road when doing so. In short, don’t panic, and always apply common sense.

Unfortunately, if you move into the bus lane to let an ambulance through, you may still have to pay that fine. You might be able to appeal, and people have successfully had fines waived for similar offences – but this isn’t a given. 

 

Is it illegal to splash a pedestrian?

Yes, you actually can get in metaphorical hot water for splashing pedestrians. Section three of the Road Traffic Act 1988 states that it is an offence to drive "without reasonable consideration for other persons", which includes "driving through a puddle causing pedestrians to be splashed".

Honestly though, even if this one wasn’t subject to a fine, I really hope this isn’t something you do routinely anyway. 

 

In short, even if your actions are not technically illegal, you can still be fined and face penalty points if the police deem you are not in proper control of your vehicle and charge you with dangerous or careless driving.

So it’s worth thinking about what you routinely do when you drive and break any bad habits that could potentially put you, and others, at risk.