02 February 2021
Written by: Chris Smith, PNLD Traffic Law Consultant
Not reviewed after the date of publication
Section 170 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (the Act), governs what a driver must do if they are involved in an accident. This article, written by PNLD’s traffic law consultant, Christopher Smith, examines the main provisions of the section and outlines some of the relevant case law. Please note the term ‘accident’ is used in its legal sense within the terms of section 170.
Scope of an accident – section 170(1)
Owing to the presence
There must be some direct causal connection between the vehicle and the occurrence of the accident – Quelch v Phipps (1955). In this case, a passenger jumped off a moving bus and injured himself. However, it is submitted that if, for example, a driver stopped to allow a pedestrian to cross and on reaching the other side of the road the pedestrian tripped over the kerb, fell, and broke their wrist, the causal connection would be insufficient.
Mechanically propelled vehicle
The term isn’t defined in the Road Traffic Acts. It will be a matter for a court to decide whether a vehicle is mechanically propelled. Generally, if the vehicle can be propelled by mechanical means it will be mechanically propelled. This interpretation is distinct from the term "motor vehicle" which has the narrower meaning contained within section 185 of the Act of “a mechanically propelled vehicle intended or adapted for use on roads”. Use of the term "mechanically propelled vehicle" in preference to "motor vehicle" allows vehicles such as a scrambler motor cycle which is not intended for use on a road, to be included under section 170.
This section doesn’t however, apply to invalid carriages (section 20 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970).
This is defined in section 192 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 as any highway and any other road to which the public has access, and includes bridges over which a road passes.
There isn’t a formal definition of public place in the Road Traffic Act 1988. However, the term "public place" for the purposes of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (as amended) has been defined as:
'Any place to which the public have open access is a public place, even if payment must be made to gain entry'. This is a question of fact and degree in each case but the general test for somewhere which is not a public place is ' whether those gaining access to the area in question have some special characteristic or reason personal to themselves which is not possessed by the public at large' (DPP v Greenwood (1997)) .
In R v Morris (1972), it was held there had been an accident when one vehicle was pushing another and their bumpers became tangled – Sachs LJ defined ‘accident’ as ‘an unintended occurrence which had an adverse physical result’. However, in the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police v Billingham (1979) the court suggested that when deciding whether there had been an accident, the court should ask – would an ordinary person say there had been an accident. Furthermore it held that a deliberate act could amount to accident if resulted in damage.
This has been held to include shock, (Hay (or Bourhill) v Young  AC 92 (115 JP Jo 250)). The injury caused must be to a person other than the driver of the mechanically propelled vehicle – this would include a passenger in the driver’s vehicle.
In Ellis v Nott-Bower (1896) 60 JP 760, a bicycle was held to be a vehicle. The term vehicle would also apply to those that are horse drawn and to trams if they were damaged by a mechanically propelled vehicle.
This is defined in section 170(8) as being any horse, cattle, ass, mule, sheep, pig, goat or dog but it doesn’t include an animal carried in the mechanically propelled vehicle or a trailer drawn by it, nor does it include cats or birds either.
This includes property constructed on, fixed to, growing in or otherwise forming part of the land on which the road or place in question is situated or land adjacent to such land. This brings damage to traffic signs, trees, plants and crops etc. within the terms of section 170.
Note that section 170 does not refer to fault / blame. Therefore, a driver has a duty to comply with its provisions even though someone else may have caused the accident.
Requirement to stop/provide details – section 170(2)
This means the person who takes the vehicle out and they remain the driver until they finish the journey – Jones v Prothero (1952) . In Cawthorn v DPP (1999) , a driver left his car parked on a hill with its hazard warning lights on, whilst he posted a letter. A passenger in the car released the handbrake and it ran down the hill colliding with and causing damage to a wall. The driver ran off when the police arrived but contacted them later – he was convicted of failing to stop and failing report an accident. The court also added that the duty to stop and report an accident was not restricted to cases where the driver was actually driving the vehicle. It was clear that the driver hadn’t completed his journey, as evidenced by the use of hazard lights. Therefore, he remained the driver and that could not be altered by the intervening act of a passenger.
This means stop, remain at the scene and near the vehicle long enough in the prevailing circumstances for anyone who has reasonable grounds for so doing to require information -Lee v Knapp (1996)). What is a ‘reasonable time’ to wait will depend on the circumstances. The driver does not have to wait indefinitely e.g. an accident involving an unattended vehicle, no other people or houses nearby. In Mutton v Bates (No.1)  RTR 256, the court held that a driver doesn’t have to go round knocking on doors or looking for people who might have the right to ask for information. The offence under section 170(2) isn’t committed just because there is some movement on the part of the driver after the accident – the section is designed to prevent the driver from leaving the scene and whether this has happened will always depend on the particular circumstances. In Hallinan v DPP (1999), a bus driver braked sharply and a passenger was injured – despite being told of the incident by passengers and being asked to stop, the driver didn’t do so. The court held that for the purpose of section 170, the scene of the accident was not the bus itself but the point in the road where the accident occurred. The driver’s duty to stop arose immediately and if he failed to do so he failed to comply with section 170(2). Driving on for about 80yds, then stopping and returning to the other vehicle wasn’t acceptable and the defendant was properly convicted of failing to stop after the accident – McDermott v DPP (1997) .
Name and address
The address doesn’t have to be the driver’s home address so long as they can be easily contacted there. In DPP v McCarthy (1999), the driver gave the name and address of his solicitors. The court ruled that in the circumstances this was acceptable. In Dawson v Winter (1932) 49 TLR 128, the court held that if the driver refuses to give his name and address to a person reasonably requiring it, he commits an offence even though he reports the matter to the police within 24 hours. If a driver provides a false name and address, this is equivalent to a refusal – R v Jackson (Kenneth)  RTR 257.
Requirement to report – 170(3)
The duty to report an accident arises whenever the driver hasn’t given their details to someone who has reasonable grounds for requiring them:
Driver involved in a collision with a young girl that caused injury to her. The parents, who the driver knew, attended the scene but the driver didn’t give them his details, produce his insurance certificate or report the accident to the police. The driver contended that he had substantially met the requirements of section 170(2) because he had told the girl’s father what had occurred and he knew them. The Divisional Court held that the father of the girl hadn’t required the driver to give his name and address, but section 170(3) required him to report the accident if for any reason he didn’t comply with section 170(2) and so there was an offence against section 170(3) – R v Crown Court at Kingston-Upon-Thames Ex p. Scarll  Crim LR 429.
Driver reported an accident to a police officer in his capacity as friend – Mutton v Bates (No.1)  RTR 256.
If a driver doesn’t give their name/address etc. after an accident because no one asks for it e.g. such as when the driver was not responsible or because there is no one at the scene, they must still report it to the police within 24 hours – Peek v Towle  2 All ER 611.
If a driver does give their name/address/details to a person reasonably requiring them, they need not report the matter to the police unless there has been personal injury and the driver hasn’t produced their insurance certificate so that section 170(5) applies – Green v Dunn  1 All ER 550.
The requirement under section 170(3) is to report at a police station or to a constable section 170(6). The report must be made by the driver in person at a police-station or to a constable; telephoning a police station or constable is not sufficient – Wisdom v Macdonald (1983).
Knowledge of the accident
In Hampson v Powell  1 All ER 929, a lorry driver who was unaware he had collided with a stationary car, was held not to be guilty under what is now section 170(2) and (3). However, in DPP v Drury  RTR 165, there was loud music playing in a car and both the driver and passengers were unaware there had been a minor collision when they passed a vehicle in a narrow country lane but some 15 minutes later, when they arrived at their destination, they noticed minor damage to the vehicle. The court held that when the driver became aware of the accident, they had a duty to report it. Once the relevant injury/damage is proved, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant to establish they didn’t know they’d been in an accident – Selby v Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset (1988). In Magee v CPS  EWHC 4089 (Admin), the defendant was intoxicated and reversed her car into another. She then drove off but when she stopped at a junction a short distance away, she was told by the owner of the other vehicle and his son that she had collided with his car – she got out of the car stating she wasn't involved, swore at the car owner and drove off again. The court stated that even if they could properly find that the appellant was unaware of the accident because of her drunken state, she could not rely upon that as a defence. She would have been able to rely on it had she been sober, but not where she was voluntarily intoxicated.
Failing to stop/report offences – section 170(4)
If a driver fails to stop (section 170(2)) or report (section 170(3) an accident, they commit an offence contrary to section 170(4). If they fail to comply with both, they commit two offences – Roper v Sullivan (1978).
Production of insurance certificate – section 170(5)
The duty to produce insurance only applies to accidents involving personal injury to another person. However, the duty wouldn’t apply if the driver was unaware of the accident/injury – Harding v Price (1948). In Tremelling v Martin  RTR 196, it was held that the production of a driving licence must be for a reasonable time to allow it to be examined and details obtained – it would appear that this case applies to insurance certificates too. The driver doesn’t have to produce their insurance certificate in person to comply with the provisions of section 170(7).
How to report – section 170(6)
The driver isn’t entitled to wait up to 24 hours before reporting the accident. In Bulman v Lakin (1981), the defendant had an accident at 1.10am and at 11am, after a police constable had called three times at his home, he called in and reported the accident at the police station. The Divisional Court held that in the absence of an explanation to the contrary, the defendant had not reported the accident as soon as was reasonably practicable. However, the Scottish case of Hornall v Scott (1992) 1993 SLT 1140 should also be considered. In that case, the accused's car collided with a motorway barrier at about 2 am. Both police stations near the accused's home were closed at the time of the accident but the main police station near the accident was open. Police called at the accused’s home around 3am after seeing the car being recovered from the scene. The Crown argued before the appeal court that the accused could have telephoned the police and arranged to call subsequently at a police station or waited at his home for a police officer to call on him. The court held that the onus was on the Crown to establish that there was a failure to report the accident at a police station or to a constable as soon as was reasonably practicable. There was nothing in the findings or evidence to suggest that if the accused had done as the Crown suggested, he would have been in a position to report the accident sooner than he did; the appeal was allowed and the conviction quashed.