Petrol station drive-offs: what does the law say?

Gavin Braithwaite-Smith
·4-min read
parking fines petrol station
parking fines petrol station

Anyone who has watched one of the many ‘traffic cops’ programmes on TV will be familiar with the term ‘bilking’. It’s used to describe the act of leaving a petrol station without paying.

According to BOSS, the British Oil Security Syndicate, forecourt crime costs each retailer around £3,600 per site. Figures obtained by Crown Oil show that 99 percent of crimes don’t result in a prosecution.

The act of leaving a petrol station without paying for fuel is covered by the Theft Act 1978. The offence of Making Off Without Payment (MOWP) is outlined in section 3 of the Act.

The Theft Act 1978 states: ‘A person who, knowing that payment on the spot for any goods supplied or service done is required or expected from him, dishonestly makes off without having paid as required or expected and with intent to avoid payment of the amount due shall be guilty of an offence.’

In serious cases, a person found guilty of Making Off Without Payment could face a maximum two years in prison and an unlimited fine. Defendants convicted in a Magistrates’ Court can be fined up to £5,000 and/or jailed for up to six months.

Police may not investigate

Police car flashing light
Police car flashing light

However, the police may not investigate the crime of making off without paying for fuel unless there is proof of criminal intent. Devon and Cornwall Police hit the headlines in 2015 when a forecourt owner was told officers would only respond if there was an obvious ‘intent’ to steal.

Devon and Cornwall Police blamed government cuts and the need to reduce spending by £51 million.

A response by the force to a request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act shows that, in 2019, of the 897 offences of Making Off Without Payment, a total of 616 were listed as ‘Investigated as far as reasonable possible. No suspect identified’. Some of these may not have been related to a petrol station drive-off.

In a separate FOI, West Yorkshire Police said it did ‘not have a specific policy’ in relation to the offence of leaving a petrol station without paying, but it has ‘specific guidance’ for forecourt retailers.

‘In summary, if the suspect draws fuel, enters the store and purchases items before paying for those items, the call taker will ask whether the suspect has been asked whether they have taken any fuel. If the question was asked, the offence made out is one of fraud by false representation. If the question was not asked, the offence is making off without payment.

‘Where fuel is drawn and the offender simply drives off, the offence is make off without payment, however where this is done in a vehicle bearing false registration plates, the appropriate offence is theft – non specific. The appropriate crime record is then completed.’

If the petrol station staff believe the act of making off without payment was unintentional or accidental, they are advised to contact the DVLA. The retailer can then seek to recoup the losses using the details of the car’s registered keeper.

How to prevent petrol station theft

Filling station petrol pump
Filling station petrol pump

In 2018, Chief Constable Simon Cole, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for local policing, called for motorists to be made to pay for fuel before they fill up. “The petroleum industry could design out bilking in 30 seconds by making people pay upfront, which is what they do in other countries,” he argued.

“They don’t, because the walk in their shops is part of their business offer.”

The manner in which drive-offs are treated varies depending on the police force. For example, Avon and Somerset Police advises retailers to start a civil recovery process if they believe it was an honest mistake. If not, retailers are advised to complete a fuel theft form, although a police force is unlikely to investigate thefts of less than £50 of petrol.

Last year, there were warnings that a surge in the number of motorists stealing petrol and diesel is forcing forecourts to close. Kevin Eastwood, executive director of BOSS, said: “escalating fuel prices are clearly tempting more motorists to evade payment”. He urged retailers to remain vigilant.

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