Thousands of motorists caught without insurance can now escape a driving ban.
Number plate scanners will catch insurance dodgers
Under new Home Office rules, offenders who agree to pay a roadside fine will not go to court for their first offence, providing they have less than six points on their licence.
Until 1 June, a court appearance could have meant a driving ban. Now the penalty will be a statutory £200 fine and six points.
The new law, introduced as part of the Police Reform Act 2002, has received a mixed reaction from magistrates.
Arthur Winnington, a magistrate for 28 years who sits on the Magistrates Association's criminal justice system committee, believes it is a green light to motorists to break the law.
It is a green light to people not to pay their insurance
Arthur Winnington, magistrate
He said: "I'm afraid where people have to pay excessive amounts in insurance, some will decide to risk not paying it in favour of a fine and penalty points if they get caught.
"Not paying insurance is a serious offence in my book, and this is a retrograde step. I think if you were to do a survey of the public, most people would agree.
"It is a green light to people not to pay their insurance."
But Elliot Griffiths, chairman of the Magistrates Association's road traffic committee, said he welcomed the move.
He said the level of fine and number of penalty points would be in line with what the courts would give a first-time offender.
"We are limited anyway in the fine that we can impose," he said. "The fine must be one which someone can reasonably be expected to pay within a 12-month period, and for an unemployed person that is usually around £5 per week."
Perhaps it is time to look at alternative ways of ensuring they have got insurance cover - for instance, including third party insurance in the road tax
Magistrate Eliot Griffiths
Of 293,889 drivers in England and Wales convicted of insurance offences in 2001, 79,264 were under 21.
Mr Griffiths says the high cost of insurance for young people is a big deterrent to them paying for adequate cover.
"Perhaps it is time to look at alternative ways of ensuring that they have got insurance cover. In the State of Victoria in Australia, for instance, third party insurance is included in the road tax," he said.
Mr Griffiths said on-the-spot fines would initially ease the burden on the courts.
Number plate scanning
But he said the new regulations in conjunction with the Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) system being introduced in police forces throughout the country would ultimately bring more serial offenders into the courts.
This system instantly scans number plates and matches them against information stored in databases.
It can tell police whether a car has been stolen or involved in crime, as well as whether the vehicle is insured, has a current MOT certificate, and a current tax disc.
Andrew Howard, head of road safety for the AA Motoring Trust, said the new laws combined with the use of new technology would bring more people to court.
"My view is that it will lead to more people being caught, act as a better deterrent, and lead to fewer people being uninsured," he added.