Tired? Pull Over And Stop For A Hot Coffee - But Not Without A Licence

Red tape aimed at late-night trouble spots is jeopardising road safety, according to the RAC Foundation.

Official Government advice tells tired drivers to "drink two cups of coffee ...and have a rest for 10-15 minutes to allow time for the caffeine to kick in" - but new laws are forcing garages to stop selling hot food and drink at night.

New licensing laws prohibit petrol forecourt stores from selling hot food and drink between 11 pm and 5 am without paying hundreds of pounds for a local authority licence. Many smaller stores say the margins on sales of food and drink at night do not make it worthwhile to go through the complicated application process. If a tired motorist asks for a coffee, or even a mug of hot water to make their own hot drink, a retailer without a licence cannot help without breaking the law.

Campaigning coach driver Sean Walsh, who regularly works late on the A17 in Lincolnshire, has told the Foundation that none of his regular pit stops can now serve him or his passengers with a hot drink on their journey between Boston and Norwich.

Driver fatigue is responsible for 10% of road casualties each year. Road accidents relating to sleepiness are more liable to result in death and serious injury as drivers fail to brake prior to impact. Drivers are particularly vulnerable to fatigue between the hours of midnight and 7 am.

Motorcyclists are also put at risk by these new laws. Riding in cold conditions can have the same effect on judgement and reaction time as drinking alcohol, according to scientists from the British Antarctic Survey. One of the best ways for a biker to raise their body temperature is to take a break and eat something hot.

If a petrol forecourt store wants to help motorists avoid the risk of an overnight crash by serving hot drinks or food to take away, the proprietor must apply for a premises licence under the Licensing Act 2003. According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the provision of "late night refreshment" requires a licence "to protect local residents because premises which serve late night refreshment can be used by customers who may have been drinking at other premises earlier in the evening, thereby creating the potential for disorder…also because large numbers of customers may gather at places serving late night refreshments, there is a potential for nuisance and disturbance for local residents."

Licence application fees include a one-off fee of up to £635; and an annual renewal fee of up to £350. Fees are based on rateable value, not the turnover of the food and drink operation, so many forecourts fall into the top fee band. Additional costs include the costs of advertising an application in a local newspaper (approximately £250), having plans professionally drawn up (to include all fire safety equipment), and the costs of any legal advice.

Once licensed, if a store is altered an application must be made to the local authority. The above fees are payable once again and the application must be advertised in a local newspaper.

Forecourt owners say the profits from serving hot food and drink in the small hours simply do not cover these costs.

Kevin Delaney, Head of Road Safety for the RAC Foundation, said: "A hot drink late at night can be a lifesaver. Motorists are less likely to take a break if garages stop serving hot food and drinks at night, and may be more likely to fall asleep at the wheel.

The Foundation is writing to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport calling on the Government to introduce an exemption so that forecourt stores can continue to provide this important community service. Tired motorists must have easy access to a hot coffee to fight fatigue."

1 March 2006 Staff

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