The police possess a wide range of powers to stop vehicles and are allowed to stop a vehicle “for any reason”. In England, Wales, and Scotland, the powers of police to stop vehicles are mostly contained in the Road Traffic Act 1988 (RTA 1988).
There is no specific search power for vehicles - the ability for an officer to search a vehicle is conferred under the same stop and search powers contained in section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE).
What is a vehicle stop?
Under section 163 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, police officers have the power to stop a person driving a vehicle on a road. A vehicle is defined as being propelled:
- By mechanical means (e.g., a car or scooter); or
- Through physical exertion (e.g., a bicycle)
The officer conducting the stop can either be a constable in uniform or a traffic officer.
A person driving a vehicle must stop upon being required to do so by an officer; if they fail to do so, they are guilty of a road traffic offence and could face a criminal sanction.
Under section 164 of the RTA 1988, an officer may require a person to produce their driving license for examination or to state their date of birth. While the decision to request this information is at the discretion of the police officer, if an officer requests that you provide this information, you must do so.
Under section 165 of the RTA 1988, a person may also be required to provide any of the following information:
- Their name and address
- The name and address of the owner of the vehicle being driven
- An insurance certificate, a test certificate and/or a goods vehicle test certificate
If asked to do so by a police officer, you must provide this information. A failure to produce any of these documents may mean that a person is found guilty of an offence, except in certain circumstances. For example, a person can show they produced their license at a specified time at a police station within seven days of their current stop. A police officer can compel you to produce these documents within this timeframe by issuing a HORT1 ‘producer’.
Refusing to take a breathalyser test when asked to do so by police after being stopped is an offence, and can result in a fine of up to £1,000 and four penalty points.
Escalation: from vehicle stop to a stop and search
There are no procedural requirements for ‘section 163’ stops, and there is no associated search power. This means that officers can stop and detain drivers on a suspicionless basis.
Once stopped, officers can then use stop and search powers under section 1 of PACE 1984 if they have reasonable grounds to suspect they will find stolen or prohibited items on the driver, or in the vehicle. See our section 1 factsheet for detailed information about this search power.
This means that although an officer does not have to have a specific reason to stop you, in order to escalate that vehicle stop to a full stop and search, the 'reasonable suspicion' test must still be satisfied.
Your rights during a vehicle stop
There is no legal obligation on drivers to step outside of their vehicle, to turn off their vehicle, or provide any documents other than those specified above (under the heading 'What is a vehicle stop?'), including under the threat of arrest.
Under Code A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, you are entitled to request a receipt or the details of the officer who stopped you. The police should make every attempt to provide one immediately unless there is an urgent matter to attend to, in which case they must tell you where you can collect it later.
It is unlawful for an officer to refuse to give you a receipt, upon request, on the basis that it will take too long or that they need to search other people first. A receipt can serve as supporting evidence for a complaint about the actions or behaviour of a particular officer.
Officers also have to respect your rights under the Equality Act 2010 during a vehicle stop. This means that you cannot be stopped purely on the basis of your race, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, disability, religion, or faith.
If you are unhappy with how you have been treated during a road traffic stop or believe that you have been discriminated against based on a protected characteristic, you can make a complaint about the officer or officers who detained you – see our complaints guide for more information on the complaints process.
What to know about stops of different kinds of vehicle
- Police can stop you when cycling at any time: they do not have to have any particular reason to stop you.
- Bikes must have white front and red rear lights fitted. Wearing a helmet and high-visibility clothing is recommended, but is not a legal requirement.
- Cyclists are not obliged to use cycle paths - they can use their own judgement in whether to cycle on the main road or any cycle lanes or segregated paths - but the law does require that cyclists stick to the 'cycle' side of a cyclist / pedestrian path, and cyclists must not cycle on the pavement unless it is a designated shared path.
- In 2019, Mani Arthur, the founder of Black Cyclists Network, was stopped by Met police officers while waiting at a red light on his bike. Police then claimed they could smell cannabis on him, and carried out a full search. The Independent Office for Police Conduct later upheld a complaint made against the Met, and found that the officer's grounds for conducting the search were not reasonable.
- The use of privately-owned e-scooters is currently illegal on all public roads in the UK. In London, police have seized thousands of e-scooters over the past few years. 3,987 were confiscated in by the Metropolitan Police in 2021 alone (Met Police, 2022).
- As part of an ongoing trial (one of many other e-scooter trials in the UK), rentable e-scooters (like Lime and Dott) are legal to ride in most parts of London, provided that the rider is 18 or over, has a full or provisional UK driving license, and completes an online safety course before their first journey. The London e-scooter trials have now been extended to November 2022.
- Freedom of information request responses have shown that Black Londoners using e-scooters are disproportionally targeted by police (Vice, 2021): in 2020, they were over three times more likely to be stopped for e-scooter offences than white Londoners (Possible, 2021). The data also showed that Black Londoners were 71% more likely to face prosecutions for e-scooter offences, compared with 39% of their white counterparts.
- Concerns about crime linked to the use of e-scooters is a frequent feature of stories in the news. These stories often indirectly promote a racist narrative about Black e-scooter users and crime and 'gang' involvement.
In 1988, the Road Traffic Act (RTA) was passed. Its overall aim was to consolidate various laws and amendments relating to road traffic, and to give effect to legal recommendations from the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission. In 1949, motor vehicles made 28.9 billion miles’ worth of journeys in Great Britain. When the RTA was passed forty years later, this had risen to 233.4 billion miles (Department for Transport, 2021).
Previous legislation in the United Kingdom covering road traffic and safety had included the Locomotive Acts that were passed throughout the second half of the 19th century, the Motor Car Act of 1903 (which introduced vehicle registration and driver licensing), several Road Traffic Acts (variously passed in 1930, 1934, 1956, and 1962), and the Road Safety Act of 1967.
In the US, research shows that the traffic stop is the most common reason for contact with the police: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 42% of face-to-face encounters that US residents had with the police were traffic stops (BJS, 2022). Scholars have traced the ‘intertwined histories’ of the development of modern policing and the rise in automobile use, arguing that ‘the growth of the police’s discretionary authority had its roots in the governance of an automotive society’ (Seo, 2016). ‘The mass production of the automobile created the greatest urban disorder at the turn of the century’, Seo writes, as well as ‘an unprecedented threat to public safety’. In response, police departments rapidly expanded, and new laws and regulations were enacted in an attempt to control the chaos caused by cars and other motor vehicles on public roads.
In the US, though – unlike in the UK – police officers must have ‘probable cause’ (similar to the British ‘reasonable suspicion’ test) in order to pull over a driver legally. By comparison, s163 of the RTA 1988 does not require a police officer to have reason nor justification to stop a driver, and failure on the part of a driver or cyclist to comply with a police request to stop constitutes a criminal offence.
S163 enables police to stop a vehicle, but it is not technically a stop and search power (although vehicle stops are often escalated to a full stop and search). There is no legal requirement for police to make a record of these stops or to collect or publish any relevant data. As a result, there is far less detailed information about traffic stops available in the UK compared to information on other police powers, despite the fact that according to research carried out in 2011, approximately one in ten adults in England and Wales were subject to a vehicle stop that year (StopWatch, 2014). Consequently, traffic stops are dramatically under-scrutinised and under-monitored.
However, we do know that there is a significant rate of disparity by ethnicity in vehicle stops. In 2011, the British Crime Survey revealed that a disproportionally large percentage of people stopped under the s163 power were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Research carried out by HMICFRS in 2015 showed that while people from minority ethnic groups are more likely than white people to be subject to a traffic stop, they are less likely to be arrested, given a fixed penalty notice, issued with a summons, or informed of an intended prosecution – suggesting that people of colour are more likely than white people to be stopped by police for no reason.
Calls for change
In the summer of 2020, two particularly high-profile incidents of racial profiling reignited a public debate about traffic stops and brought the practice under increased scrutiny: in July, athlete Bianca Williams and her partner Ricardo dos Santos were stopped and handcuffed after being pulled over by Metropolitan police officers; a month later, Labour MP Dawn Butler was also stopped by police in London whilst in her car with a friend (all were Black).
In response, campaigners called for drivers’ ethnicity to be recorded in all police traffic stops – a practice which was first implemented following the landmark Macpherson Report published in 1999, but was then abandoned several years later. In 2016, Home Secretary Theresa May announced that all traffic stops were to be recorded as part of her plan to reform police stop and search powers (StopWatch, 2016) through the 'Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme' (BUSSS). Yet again, the practice was dropped, and the obligation to record traffic stops failed to materialise as part of the BUSSS following a later review.
StopWatch have long campaigned for increased monitoring of – and restrictions on – s163 stops. In a 2017 report co-written with Liberty, ‘Driving While Black’, we recommended that PACE Code A (the stop and search code of practice) should be extended to cover s163 of the RTA, and that all traffic stops under s163 should be recorded.
Six years on from Theresa May's proposals, little progress has been made. Sprinter Ricardo dos Santos – partner of Bianca Williams – was stopped again by the Met in August 2022 in the latest high-profile incident of a vehicle stop influenced by police racism. The case has been referred to police watchdog the IOPC – less than six months after the IOPC announced that the officers involved in the 2020 stop of Williams and dos Santos would face gross misconduct proceedings for their actions. In early 2023, a former IOPC employee revealed that she had resigned over the handling of the 2020 complaint, claiming that her investigation was 'watered down' - a claim that the IOPC denies (BBC News, 2023).
In early 2021, it was announced that the Metropolitan Police would start recording the ethnicity of people stopped in their cars. As part of a wider package of police reforms initiated by London mayor Sadiq Khan in the aftermath of widespread public outrage towards and distrust in the Met, a year-long pilot was launched (The Guardian, 2021). The pilot would see officers record the location and time of the stop, the driver’s ethnic background, sex, and age, as well as the make and model of the vehicle stopped. However, more than a year and a half on from the announcement of the pilot, there has been no further news about the pilot’s outcome, nor any resulting long-term legislative change.
See our factsheets on other stop and search powers: