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Unwitting motorists face £1,000 fines as thousands of photocard driving licences expire
By Ray Massey
Last updated at 6:46 PM on 11th September 2008
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Thousands of motorists are at risk of being fined up to £1,000 because they are unwittingly driving without a valid licence.
They risk prosecution after failing to spot the extremely small print on their photocard licence which says it automatically expires after 10 years and has to be renewed - even though drivers are licensed to drive until the age of 70.
The fiasco has come to light a decade after the first batch of photo licences was issued in July 1998, just as they start to expire.
Motoring organisations blamed the Government for the fiasco and said 'most' drivers believed their licences were for life.
A mock-up driving licence from 1998 when the photocards were launched shows the imminent expiry date as item '4b'
They said officials had failed to publicise sufficiently the fact that new-style licences - unlike the old paper ones - expire after a set period and have to be renewed.
To rub salt into wounds, drivers will have to pay £17.50 to renew their card - a charge which critics have condemned as a 'stealth tax' and which will earn the Treasury an estimated £437million over 25 years.
Official DVLA figures reveal that while 16,136 expired this summer, so far only 11,566 drivers have renewed, leaving 4,570 outstanding.
With another 300,000 photocard licences due to expire over the coming year, experts fear the number of invalid licences will soar, putting thousands more drivers in b reach of the law and at risk of a fine.
At the heart of the confusion is the small print on the tiny credit-card-size photo licence, which is used in conjunction with the paper version.
4b: The small print on the back of the driving licence is easy to miss
Just below the driver name on the front of the photocard licence is a series of dates and details - each one numbered.
Number 4b features a date in tiny writing, but no explicit explanation as to what it means.
The date's significance is only explained if the driver turns over the card and reads the key on the back which states that '4b' means 'licence valid to'.
Even more confusingly, an adjacent table on the rear of the card sets out how long the driver is registered to hold a licence - that is until his or her 70th birthday.
A total of 25million new-style licences have been issued but - motoring experts say - drivers were never sufficiently warned they would expire after 10 years.
The DVLA said failure to update the photocard after 10 years fell into the same category as failing to inform them of a change of address.
Both offences fall under Section 99 of the Road Traffic Act, specifically 'failure to surrender a licence without reasonable excuse.'
The DVLA said it did not affect entitlement to drive, but was still an offence carrying a maximum £1,000 fine.
The Association of British Insurers and the Department for Transport said that insurance cover was not affected if drivers failed to update their photocard.
Experts said that it was akin to driving without a valid MOT certificate: 'It is a breach of the law but does not invalidate insurance,' said an insider.
A DVLA spokesperson said: 'The DVLA has written to each and every person when their photocard driving licence is due for renewal on how to go about renewing it and the penalty for not doing so. Drivers are also required by law to notify the DVLA if they change address.'
He said: 'It is important that photocards are updated every ten years to ensure the police and other enforcement agencies have the best possible tool to help them correctly identify whether a driving lic ence is being used fraudulently, and so help prevent driving licence impersonation - and stop disqualified and perhaps dangerous drivers taking to our roads.'
Edmund King of the AA said of charging motorists for the update: 'Is it a licence or a licence to print money?
'The DVLA could pay for licence updating out of the £450million per year they take from enforcement fines or the almost three quarters of a billion pounds they have made for sale of cherished number plates since the scheme started.
'This money goes to the Treasury rather than DVLA but shows that there is potential money to pay for driving licence changes.
'Those that hope to get round the photo licence renewal view by holding onto their paper licences will also be in for a shock as these are also being phased out.'
He continued: 'It is not generally known that photocard licences expire: there appears to be a lack of information that people will have to renew these licences.
'People think they have already paid for them once over and that is it.
'It will come as a surprise to motorists and a shock that they have to pay an extra £17.50.'
Before photocard licences were introduced, old-style paper licences were valid until the age of 70.
'Many motorists still believe this to be the case with the new ones.'
Conservative Shadow Transport Secretary Theresa Villiers said: 'This is typical of what drivers have learned to expect from Labour - yet more incompetent administration20combined with efforts to hit the motorist for more and more money.
'Drivers will be angry if they face a £1,000 fine without the DVLA having made any serious efforts to let people know about the need to renew their licences.
'As the cost of living rises daily, the Government is more interested in milking the motorist for cash than finding ways to help people deal with the economic downturn.'
Driving instructor Tony Carter, of Canterbury , said: 'It's outrageous; everybody thinks their driving licence is for life.
'Why - when you have already paid £50 for your photocard licence - should you pay the Government an extra £17.50 every 10 years?
'It's another stealth tax. Drivers will be very annoyed.'
Today the DVLA said the date of expiry was carried on the new-style licences, even though the AA says this is 'not clear'.
The Agency was unable to say whether motorists were told the licences would expire when they were first issued.
It said it was issuing postal reminders to drivers whose photograph was due to expire, to get the renewal message across. But a spokesman admitted this was the limit of the DVLA's publicity.
Experts say many drivers will slip through the net because DVLA records are inaccurate and many motorists have changed address, making it impossible to trace them.
A DVLA spokesman said: 'Previous experience has shown that wide-scale publicity is less effective and can generate enquiries and concerns from those not affected.
'Instead, DVLA focused on targeted publicity to ensure that we got the message to the right person at the right time.'
The Driving Standards Agency is allowing L-test candidates with out-of-date photocard licences to sit their driving tests as long as they provide a valid passport.
This concession will end in January next year, raising the prospect that some L-test candidates will be turned away.
The DVLA said no one had so far been charged with failing to surrender a licence.