Page last updated at 13:55 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

Who can get away with speeding?

The Magazine answers...

We know the emergency services can speed and jump red lights when they are attending a 999 call, but who else can get away with speeding?

Speed camera
Fines are issued automatically but police do have discretion

When consultant obstetrician Dr Sherif Abdel-Fattah got a speeding ticket in August for marginally exceeding the limit while rushing to the aid of a woman with severe bleeding he expected the fine would be quickly overturned.

He had a letter from his hospital trust confirming the life-threatening nature of the early morning call out, but it took until last Friday for Avon and Somerset Police to relent and cancel the fine.

So, who can legally speed?

"The only people who are statutorily allowed to speed are drivers of the emergency service vehicles when going about proper business," says Chris Hunt Cooke, chairman of the Magistrates' Association's road traffic committee.

But the law allows a "special reasons" defence for everybody else. The typical "speeding ticket" these days is a fixed penalty notice, issued automatically after being caught on camera. It represents a conditional offer for the driver, who can refuse and instead face prosecution at a magistrates' court where they can argue their case.

The emergency services have a statutory exemption when attending emergencies
But anybody can plead 'special reasons'
These are often medical emergencies, but can be other things

"Magistrates have discretion not to put points on a licence if there are special reasons not to do so. A doctor going to an emergency is a very good reason," says Mr Hunt Cooke.

"Courts also have a general discretion about the amount of any fine. If they thought it was appropriate for the doctor to be speeding they would probably order an absolute discharge."

But the discretion doesn't just lie with magistrates. The police can use their common sense too - dismissing a case before it gets to court.

In the Home Office's Revised Guidance on the Operation of the Fixed Penalty System for Offences in Respect of a Vehicle, forces are advised: "An officer will at all times consider the circumstances of the offence when reaching a decision whether to take no further action, give a verbal warning... complete a FPN [fixed penalty notice] or report for summons, bearing in mind any mitigating or exacerbating factors which may be present. At all times police action must be seen to be fair, consistent and proportionate, requiring the same standard of evidence for the issue of a FPN as required for a court hearing."

This explains the action by Avon and Somerset Police after an exchange of correspondence. They refused to comment on the reports that they had initially rejected Dr Abdel-Fattah's attempt to be exempted from his fine and penalty points.

"When someone is caught speeding, we will take into consideration any extenuating circumstances and will judge each case on its merits. While we have a clear duty to uphold the law, there are occasions when we can exercise discretion and common sense," a spokeswoman for Avon and Somerset Police says.

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A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

"A doctor en-route to perform an emergency life-saving procedure is one such occasion which would require further consideration, and having reviewed this case, police will be taking no further action against this individual."

While most people would see that a doctor being called to a life-and-death situation constitutes a "special reason", there is no definitive list.

Instead those appealing against the decisions of the police and magistrates have to rely on a patchwork of case law. There can be some non-medical pleas for exemption.

"There was a case [of someone escaping] someone who was trying to shoot him," says Mr Hunt Cooke.

And it's not just speeding where you can claim special reasons for breaking the law. Drink-driving and many other road traffic offences are open to the defence.

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