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Recently, US President Joe Biden attended the G7 summit in the UK. Various videos (e.g. here) show his motorcade. As might be expected, many of the vehicles are fitted with (and using) the red and blue emergency lights that are standard in the US.

The Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations (1989), section 11(1), stipulates that "No vehicle shall be fitted with a lamp which is capable of showing a red light to the front, except [cases that are not relevant here]". It would seem clear that the president's vehicles are contravening this.

Did the UK government take any action ahead of the visit (e.g. special regulations) to authorise this use? Alternatively, do principles of diplomatic immunity enable the president to disregard such regulations? Or is there simply a pragmatic decision to ignore the issue?

Put another way: if an overly-keen traffic cop tried to take enforcement action here, how would it end?

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    It would seem they are exempt under Regulation 7: Visiting Forces, but it doesn't say Section 11...
    – Ron Beyer
    Jul 5, 2021 at 16:40
  • I wondered if the exemption under s.5, Temporarily imported vehicles might apply. However, that falls back to the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, and Art. 15(2) says "In no case shall a vehicle have a red light... directed to the front".
    – avid
    Jul 5, 2021 at 16:51
  • @avid 15(4) says "Any Contracting State or subdivision thereof may, provided that all measures are taken to guarantee normal conditions of safety, exempt from certain provisions of this Article: (a) vehicles used for special purposes or under special conditions." One could argue that s.5 saying "complies in every respect" doesn't rule out exemptions that are part of the convention itself, and a law enforcement vehicle operated to protect a head of state certainly counts as "used for special purposes."
    – cpast
    Jul 5, 2021 at 22:55
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    @avid More or less. Absent a reference that this is exactly what's happening, though, it's just a possibility (one could also read s.5 as forbidding the use of exceptions). The exact rules that apply here aren't going to be tested in court anyway (the keen traffic cop would get a lecture from their superiors and the UK government would drop the case and apologize for the incident).
    – cpast
    Jul 5, 2021 at 23:41
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    Doesn't diplomatic immunity mean not being a subject to the local laws? A number of years ago a Georgian diplomat killed a US citizen while driving drunk. They could not be prosecuted until Georgia waved his immunity. Not being subject to the laws means just that. The motorcade would not have to stop for any local law enforcement if it so chooses. I don't have the legal references, so I can't post the answer. But anyone claiming otherwise, would have to address relevant examples of diplomats getting away with minor and major crimes.
    – grovkin
    Jul 6, 2021 at 2:56

4 Answers 4

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No they didn't break any British traffic regulations. As can be seen in the video, the road is closed to regular traffic. This is done by British police motorcycles according to British traffic laws. On this temporarily closed road regular traffic regulations no longer apply. Bidens motorcade can use whatever light they feel like.

This is the same principle that happens in say a political demonstration. Police block the road for regular traffic. Afterwards trucks with all kinds of decorations are allowed to drive inside a crowd of walking people. This would not be legal according to British traffic regulations but it is fine in this situation because the road is blocked for regular traffic.

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    Can you point to a legislative provision to this effect? I believe 'closing a road' requires requires specific procedures to be followed. Technically the police motorcyclists are not closing the road; they are exercising their powers to control traffic.
    – avid
    Nov 4, 2021 at 17:00
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according to Geneva Convention on Road Traffic 1949 (the last treaty between the 2 relevant countries)

The vehicle must meet all technical requirements to be legal for road use in the country of registration. Any conflicting technical requirements (e.g., right-hand-drive or left-hand-drive) in the signatory country where the vehicle is being driven do not apply.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geneva_Convention_on_Road_Traffic

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  • Article 15(2) of that same convention says "In no case shall a vehicle have a red light or a red reflector directed to the front". In any case, it would seem to me that the issue here is about using the lights, not just about having them fitted to the vehicle.
    – avid
    Nov 5, 2021 at 7:45
  • Also exempts special purpose vehicles in the same article. In any case, since its a temporarily imported vehicle, the Geneva convention would apply, so could not have broken a uk law.
    – camelccc
    Nov 5, 2021 at 12:20
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The Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964, which brings the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations into UK law, provides an immunity from criminal jurisdiction for diplomatic agents (treaty article 31) and for their staff (article 37). This should be enough to exempt the motorcade drivers, assuming that they are part of the entourage that Biden brought with him. (If some of them happened to be regular UK citizens then article 38(2) gives a weaker immunity, as it binds the host government to not "interfere unduly with the performance of the functions of the mission", but I think this is not the case here.)

However, in terms of the road traffic laws alone, the motorcade is moving under the direction of the UK police. Under the Road Traffic Act 1988, section 35, they have a general power to tell vehicles where to go, which is not conditional on those vehicles meeting any particular regulatory standard. Indeed, part of the point of this section is to allow the police to direct somebody who's not in compliance - for example, if you have a broken headlight, and are told to proceed carefully to a garage to repair it. Likewise, the police can direct you to go the wrong way down a one-way street, go through a red light, etc., and since you have to comply with their instruction, you have a defence to what would otherwise be a violation. These powers are routinely exercised and are well understood in the courts.

So the police could lawfully escort a non-diplomatic procession of red-light-bearing vehicles down the street, if they chose. (And they have discretion about whether and how to enforce particular traffic laws, so they don't have to arrest somebody driving a non-compliant vehicle.)

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  • Just to clarify your point, in the Presidential Motorcade, all drivers are U.S. Secret Service Agents. As part of qualifying for a position in the USSS, applicants must be U.S. Citizens (required for a TOP SECRET clearance.). The people driving the President's cars (for security reasons, there are multiple vehicles in a motorcade to make a shell game of attacks directed at any one of three "Beasts" that is acting as "Stagecoach" ("The Beast" is the unofficial nickname of the unique Cadillac limos while "Stagecoach" is the code name for the Beast in which POTUS is riding in.).
    – hszmv
    Nov 5, 2021 at 15:51
  • @hszmv so all of the drivers enjoy diplomatic immunity in relation to any offenses they may commit while driving the vehicles (as well as in relation to many other categories of offense).
    – phoog
    Nov 6, 2021 at 17:18
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I have no idea if the US presidential motorcade contravened UK traffic regulations, but I highly doubt it.

Recently, in my city the local police closed some roads downtown. They let some bicyclists on these closed roads. The bicyclists rode their bikes pretty fast and

  1. ignored the traffic lights
  2. used the whole road (both left and right)

Were these bicyclists breaking US traffic regulations? No, because when the police closed the road for a bicycle race, the road ceased being a public road and the traffic regulations were no longer in effect.

IANAL but I am sure it is something like that. Anyway if a copper were to issue a "wrong-way" bicyclist a ticket, I am guessing that it would not end too well for the copper and even the dumbest copper on the force knows it.

Without knowledge of the UK traffic regulations, why wouldn't they close the road for the motorcade and why wouldn't this make the ordinary traffic regulations not applicable.

I suspect if the US President were to unwisely make unscheduled travel, then the motorcade would be subject to UK traffic regulations (and everybody would be steamed).

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  • it would not. do you think his drivers have drivers licenses in every country of the world? or do you think they would trust the job of driving him to local drivers?
    – grovkin
    Jul 6, 2021 at 20:38
  • @grovkin The President of the United States is a powerful person, but he takes road trips in England because the UK government wants to receive him - not because he has any inherent rights to use the road. If POTUS's road trips were not judged to be in the UK's interests, the President simply would not be allowed on the road.
    – emory
    Jul 6, 2021 at 20:46
  • The motorcade's use of the road is subject to the agreement between the 2 countries. The restrictions imposed on UK residents do not apply. The only restrictions are the self-imposed ones which result from compliance with the treaties.
    – grovkin
    Jul 6, 2021 at 20:53
  • @grovkin Of course, you are right that the motorcade's use of the road is subject to bilateral agreement. If POTUS unwisely decided to travel outside the agreement, then the motorcade would be subject to the ordinary restrictions that are enforced upon everyone else. Considering the weight of the vehicle is a state secret, I would imagine that just properly registering the vehicle would be problematic.
    – emory
    Jul 6, 2021 at 23:46
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    no. no restrictions could be imposed on a diplomat other than asking them to leave (making them persona non grata). They literally cannot be prosecuted for murder because of diplomatic immunity. Their compliance with any local laws is a courtesy. If a cop tried to stand in front of their car to prevent it from moving, the driver would have the discretion of not stopping. Anyhow, you seem to insist that the numerous examples to the contrary do not disprove your point, so I don't know what else I can tell you.
    – grovkin
    Jul 7, 2021 at 7:12

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