If you’ve ever found yourself held up in a huge tailback of traffic courtesy of a census point or road traffic survey you might be wondering on whose authority they are conducted and what legal right the police have to stop you.
For most motorists, the first they realise they are about to participate in a Q&A session courtesy of the local authority is when they find themselves filtered through a coned-off stretch of road, directly into the clutches of a hi-viz army of clipboard weilding officials. Uniformed police officers select vehicles (supposedly at random) and redirect them toward the census point where drivers are asked questions or handed forms by civilian contractors employed by the local authority. The surveys relate to infrastructure, road safety and road improvement with questions ranging from “how often do you drive?” to “what type of fuel do you have in your car?”
The question many motorists have of their own, is what happens if you DON’T wish to participate in the survey, can you refuse? And are these census points being abused by the police and the local authority as yet another way of ticketing motorists for minor offences?
Your right to refuse
Police powers to stop a vehicle in relation to conducting traffic surveys are governed by section 36(4) of the Road Traffic Act 1988. It is an offence to refuse to comply with any road signs or directions that redirect a vehicle into a particular line of traffic or toward a census point.
By the way, don’t confuse traffic census points with road checks, which in any event should be made clear on your approach by temporary traffic signs. Road checks are carried out by the police for investigating criminal matters, such as locating witnesses to accidents or serious crimes, or checking vehicles for a person who is unlawfully at large. Road traffic surveys are conducted strictly for civil matters and not to tackle crime.
Section 36(4) of the Road Traffic Act also makes it clear that drivers do NOT have to provide any information for the purposes of a traffic survey. Not only do you commit no offence by refusing to supply information for the purposes of a survey, no officer or official can use your refusal as grounds to unreasonably delay you further or insist you explain why you are declining to participate. This means that with a simple “No thanks” you must be allowed to continue your journey without any further unreasonable delay.
Civilian staff have no powers to stop your vehicle
It’s important to understand that only a uniformed police officer or designated traffic official (who must also be in uniform) can stop your vehicle. Verbal permission cannot be given to civilians by the police or a traffic officer to stop vehicles as the police cannot confer their powers to another in this way.
What is a designated traffic official? Simple, it is a card carrying official such as a PCSO or Highways England Traffic Officer who has been designated the relevant powers by an appropriate national authority. Civil contractors and council staff are NOT designated officials and have no powers to stop your vehicle. However they can redirect traffic that has been initially stopped by the police, direct vehicles in and out of traffic and conduct the census itself.
Unfortunately, the only way you can find out if an official has the power to stop your vehicle, is after you have been stopped! You can then ask to see their official designation card (which will list all of the statutory powers they have been granted). You would not be be causing an obstruction by doing this as designated officials are obliged to show their designation card upon reasonable request. It is an offence for them to refuse.
In short, if anyone other than a police officer stops your car and refuses to show you their designation card, admits to not having one, or claims to be ‘stopping vehicles on behalf of the police’ this would render the stop unlawful. Technically you would be within your rights to drive away; no offence would be committed by doing so, but don’t expect the police to be so studiously aware of what the law actually is. If they were, then this website wouldn’t even exist.
Can the police search your vehicle or ticket you at a census point?
Although there is nothing preventing police officers from inspecting a vehicle or asking to see documents during the census, they cannot use the census solely for such a purpose. But of course, that doesn’t mean they won’t.
The police may ticket or prosecute anyone who they find breaking road traffic laws whilst at a census point. This includes searching your vehicle if they smell cannabis, breathalysing you if they smell alcohol, or inspecting your vehicle if they think it unroadworthy, as well as asking you to produce vehicle documents.
Although there is no evidence to suggest that the local authority are abusing census points in this way, some motorists are suspicious that traffic surveys may often be false flag exercises to collect more revenue by ticketing for minor traffic offences.
Traffic surveys and your right to silence
As the Road Traffic Act makes clear, it is entirely your decision if you choose to answer census questions, but let me give you some good reasons why it’s best to decline:
Firstly, the longer you are sat answering questions the more time the police will have to scrutinise you and your vehicle; so if you are of a paranoid persuasion – regardless of your lawfulness – it could be in your best interests to move along as swiftly as possible.
Secondly, there’s no real way of knowing if the information gathered is used for the purposes the local authority say it is. When you take into consideration the vast number of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras staring down at our roads and motorways, collecting and sharing data on every vehicle that passes beneath them, it may make you wonder why the authorities can’t mine this particular network of state intrusion for the information they claim to be seeking.
The police apologists and authoritarians among us might well argue ‘why not co-operate if it’s for the benefit of us all’ but this facile excuse will sound as hollow as a drum to any motorist that has been forced to sit in a 3 mile tailback for an hour, just itching for the opportunity to tell the first official he sees what they can do with their census.
It may be a debatable point, but drivers that take a stand and refuse to participate, aren’t just doing a service to the line of motorists waiting behind them, they are doing a service to every motorist in the country – by discouraging the local authority from persisting with these needless tick-box blockades of our public roads.