The short answer is no, you’re usually not breaking the law if you sleep in your car.
When it comes to taking a break, and even having a nap, the Highway Code is clear on this. But there are a few conditions you should know.
Rule 91 of the Highway Code recommends taking a “Minimum break of fifteen minutes after every two hours of driving.”
And if you’re feeling especially tired, it suggests drinking “Two cups of caffeinated coffee and taking a ‘short nap’ for at least fifteen minutes.”
But before you pull up to catch 40 winks, there are some circumstances to be aware of.
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."
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 in to 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, you cannot get into trouble if you can prove there was no likelihood of driving the vehicle while under the influence. 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, and it’s best to avoid it by measuring your intake of alcohol units.
There's no legal definition of being ‘in charge’ and it depends on your individual circumstances. The onus is on you to prove that you weren’t going to use the vehicle.
Tings 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.
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 Specialise 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 – many happily are available 24/7 – where you can park up for a short sleep.
In addition, you can freshen up at facilities after you have had some shut eye. All motorway service operators offer free parking for up to two hours, according to Moto-way.
Do set an alarm though, as after two hours you’re liable for a charge. Some sites have digital camera automatic number plate recognition systems, also known as ANPR.
These monitor the cars entering and exiting. Service stations are not 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.
However, 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 is 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 are planning a long drive, why not make like a cub scout or girl guide and be prepared?
In addition to the must-have items in case of an emergency, add things in your boot that would make you feel as comfortable as you could possibly be while sleeping in a car.
A sleeping bag and/or blanket
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, as it’s bad for the environment, wastes fuel and it’s placing unnecessary wear on the vehicle by running the engine.
Don’t leave it 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, after all. Just do it legally and safely, and maybe even embrace the adventure of doing it.