Councils across the country have been turning off streets lights entirely or making them "part time" (i.e. switched off for part of the night).
There are perfectly reasonable public policy arguments for and against this. On one hand it is said to save money and reduce CO2 emissions. On the other hand it is said to increase the risk of crime or accidents (such as people tripping on pavements they cannot see) and it is argued that people are turning or leaving on more domestic lights (for example to see their way on their garden path) which may undo any CO2 benefit.
It is also raises a number of legal questions with regard to motoring law, specifically speeding, in residential areas.
There are respectable arguments for and against lights switch off having an effect and until the point is fully argued before a competent court we may not have a definitive answer.
This article discusses the matter in principle, in an academic way, rather than commenting on any specific case.
It goes without saying that everyone should drive responsibly. Acknowledging that there may be legal doubt is not to encourage or discourage any particular action but it rather to highlight important questions about where we all stand in relation to the law. It should also encourage legislators and others in authority to consider carefully whether their actions are at risk of creating legal uncertainty.
Indeed, at the root of this issue is arguably a lacuna in the statute. When the relevant legislation was drafted it may be that part time lights were not imagined and that Parliament anticipated roads would either have lights or not have them.
Most residential roads are restricted roads, which under Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 s. 81, means that it is an offence to drive on that road in excess of 30 mph.
How does a road become a restricted road?
It can be designated by the traffic authorities as a restricted road. In which case, appropriate signage is necessary for the road to be enforced.
Alternatively a road can become a restricted road if there is a system of street lights on it with lamps not more than 200 yards apart under section 82(1)(a). It is probably that most restricted roads are restricted by virtue of street lights rather than designation and signage.
There is certain record of the courts insisting on strict compliance with the requirements of s. 82(1)(a).
In Martin v Harrow Crown Court the High Court (on appeal) found that the burden is on the prosecution to prove that a road is a restricted road, although it is good practice for the defence to give notice if the matter is in issue. It was also decided that if the lamps were more than 200 yards apart (or there was any reasonable doubt that they might more than that distance) then the lamps were not good proof for the prosecution to assert that the road was restricted.
In Spittle v Kent County Constabulary Crim LR 744 the fact that one street lamp was broken was held to be immaterial. In Briere v Hailstone (1968) 122 SJ 767 a conviction was upheld even though half the lamps were wrongly distanced.
However, in Roberts v Coxford (1969) a prosecution failed because lights lit the pavement rather than the road.
It has been considered that if a stretch of lights were broken there would not be sufficient to prove restriction on that stretch of road. Lamps must actually throw light onto the road.
So, what if the street lights are deliberately turned off as a matter of policy?
There obvious arguments that they could not then be relied upon as evidence of a restricted road. A switched of light is not a lamp. It is just a metal pole sticking upwards. Whether they would be seen might vary between roads. If lights positioned to thrown light on the pavement rather than road or are broken for a stretch are insufficient to prove a restriction then it is clearly analogous that a turned off stretch of lights will have the same effect. It does not matter whether there are off by choise or by malfunction.
There is a legitimate counter argument that the prosecution could make. They would say that in many cases the lamp posts would still be visible and that the Act does not say that the street light system has to be illuminated. The Act is silent on the point. However, the first problem with that argument is the line of authority that says light must be thrown on the road. The second problem is that Parliament in 1984 presumably did not contemplate part time lights. If the Act is ambiguous then, as is normal in criminal law, courts will resolve ambiguity in favour of the defence.
There are arguments to be made for both sides and we may need full argument in court to provide a definitive answer but on balance my opinion is that the turning off of street lights is likely to present the prosecution with an extra problem when they allege speeding.
It should be stressed that this is not a questions of "people getting away with it". It is a question of what the speed limit is on a given piece of road and knowing where we all stand in relation to the law. No piece of road has a speed limit simply "because it does". A society based on the rule of law requires more than that.
The most important thing is that people drive safely whether street lights are on or off.