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Is it illegal to sleep in your car?

When it comes to taking a break, and even having a nap, the Highway Code is clear on this. You can sleep in your car, but there are a few conditions you should know before you do. 
So before you pull up and have a sleep in your car, there are some circumstances to be aware of. 

A bed is arranged in the back of a car for someone to sleep in

Rule 91 of the Highway Code recommends taking a “Minimum break of 15 minutes after every 2 hours of driving.”

And if you’re feeling especially tired, it suggests drinking “2 cups of caffeinated coffee and taking a ‘short nap’ for at least 15 minutes.” 

Alison Ashworth from Ashworth Motoring Law says:

“Whether or not you can legally spend the night in your car depends on several factors, such as where you’re parked, and whether you have any alcohol or drugs in your system." 

So, if you’re under the influence or parked somewhere you shouldn’t be, it's illegal to sleep in your car.

 

When is it illegal to sleep in your car? 

Under Section 4 and 5 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, there are times where you could get into trouble for sleeping in your car in the UK.

The act relates to driving or being in charge if you’re over the alcohol limit or under the influence of drugs

The penalties are harsh. If you drive under the influence, you could face a maximum of a 3 months’ prison sentence, an unlimited fine or a minimum 1-year ban.

However, if you can prove you weren’t driving the vehicle while under the influence you probably won’t get into trouble. For example, if you don’t have your car keys on you while you’re in your vehicle. 

 

Sleeping after a big night out 

There’s not much leeway if you’re caught by the police with drugs or alcohol in your system while sleeping in your vehicle. But it’s best to avoid it by measuring your intake of alcohol units or avoiding drinking entirely if you’re driving. 

There's no legal definition of being ‘in charge’ of a vehicle and it depends on your individual circumstances. The onus is on you to prove that you weren’t going to use the vehicle. 

Things become more complicated when “A person is sitting in the vehicle or ‘otherwise involved with it'.”

This could include:

  • Attempting to gain entry to the vehicle and failing
  • Having keys to the vehicle
  • Having intention to take control of the vehicle

Again, it depends on context and intention.

Having a drink-driving related conviction could increase the cost of your car insurance. And remember, a drink driving ban could also prevent you travelling abroad.

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Where can you park up and sleep overnight? 

Where you choose to park your car is another great consideration.

Alex Garner, a Road Traffic Specialist from Stephensons Solicitors, says:

“It’s not an offence to sleep in your car, but it’s the location that’s important.

“For example, you can’t expect to pull up and park on double yellow lines.” 

Look for a safe place to park. It is legal to do so on residential streets but be aware of any parking restrictions.

Be careful with car parks too. Some may lock their gates overnight or have a 24-hour charging system in place – which could make for an expensive night’s stay.

Some car parks also implement local bylaws that prevent overnight stays, especially in town centres or coastal locations. 

While it is legal to park on residential street, remember, as Alison Ashworth warns:

“Sleeping in your vehicle is likely to attract attention.” She adds, “Worried residents may fear for your safety, or their own, and call the police.

"And trespassing onto private land could lead to a rude awakening from the police if you’re reported.”

 

Motorway services and sleeping in your car 

When it comes to sleeping in your car, you should never stop on the hard shoulder for a snooze. The hard shoulder is for emergencies only. 

Ideally, find a motorway service area where you can park up for a short sleep. Many are available 24/7.

You can also freshen up at facilities after you've had some shut eye. All motorway service operators offer free parking for up to 2 hours, according to Moto-way

Do set an alarm though, as after 2 hours you’re liable for a charge. Some sites have digital camera automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems

These monitor the cars entering and exiting. Service stations aren't standard, and some have strict limits on how long you can stay.

 

Sleeping in lorries, caravans and motorhomes

It’s not uncommon to see lorries parked up in a lay-by late at night. And, as with any vehicle, the rules are the same when it comes to parking and sleeping. 

But larger vehicles may find it harder to find safe parking. Many car parks have height restrictions, and local bylaws may prevent certain vehicles – like caravans or motorhomes – from parking overnight. 

While it's not illegal to park a caravan on the road, ensure it’s neither causing any obstruction nor parked dangerously. 

 

How to sleep in your car safely 

If you're planning a long drive, it's best to be prepared.

Consider adding things in your boot that would make you feel as comfortable as you could possibly be while sleeping in a car. This is in addition to your emergency kit.

  • Consider packing: 
  • A pillow
  • A sleeping bag and/or blanket
  • Energy bars
  • Snacks and water

Don’t park where you feel vulnerable, exercise caution, lock your doors and crack the window just enough to allow some fresh air in. 

It’s best not to leave the air conditioner or heating on either. It’s bad for the environment, wastes fuel and it’s placing unnecessary wear on the vehicle by running the engine.

Don’t leave your engine running in an enclosed space in particular, as there’s a small risk of breathing in noxious fumes. 

It’s a good idea to take breaks on long journeys particularly when you feel tired. Just do it legally and safely, and maybe even embrace the novelty of doing it.