Legal Cheek

The real cost of stealing traffic cones

Drunken night out prize could leave you without a training contract

Image credit: Instagram (@nancy.evans97)

Traffic cones and other road signs have become a staple of university halls’ kitchens. Some are used as Christmas trees and washing racks, or just sit as mementos of good nights out. “When living in halls during first year it was more unusual for me to go into someone’s flat who wasn’t in possession of a road sign!” one law student muses. Another law graduate told Legal Cheek:

“I pinched a few traffic cones while drunk during my undergraduate degree. Completely pointless I know, but lots of people were doing it. I knew one guy who managed to bring a full stop sign home with him following a particularly big night out.”

That doesn’t mean stealing one won’t get you in hot water.

Nabbing a traffic cone off the street falls under section 1 of the Theft Act 1968, a provision law students will likely know all too well from their criminal law studies. The section makes someone guilty of theft if they dishonestly appropriate property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it. The offence carries with it a maximum custodial penalty of seven years.

Taking a piece of traffic equipment off the street does fit the basic property offence model (though Dan Bunting, a barrister at 2 Dr Johnson’s Buildings, points out to Legal Cheek that there may be an issue over “intention to permanently deprive”, given most make their stealing traffic cone debut while under the influence). But the real question is: Can the police really be bothered to enforce it? Foundry Chambers’ Daniel Sternberg tells Legal Cheek he’s never been involved in any sort of traffic cone theft case; a scan of Google drums up little by way of precedent.

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There are many reasons for this. Perhaps the cases just aren’t cost effective; each cone is worth less than £10 and as one law student points out: “Lots of traffic cones will go missing anyway… There are a lot worse things that people could be doing [than stealing cones].”

But, in many ways the seriousness of the theft doesn’t hinge on the property’s monetary value but on the impact the crime could cause.

Section 22A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 makes it illegal to interfere with traffic equipment, traffic cones included, where it’d be obvious to a reasonable person that to do so would be dangerous (think cones alerting drivers to pot holes and other potential dangers).

The threshold for liability is made far lower because injury or damage need not actually occur for the offence to be satisfied. Prosecutions under this offence, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, include DPP v D, where two people placed a large road sign on a dual carriageway without authorisation.

There’s also the potential danger posed to students themselves. Hanging out in the middle of a road while intoxicated is not clever. And what are you going to do with the equipment once you have it? One student, an 18-year-old called Tom Callaway, died this year when his friends dared him to put a traffic cone on a horse and soldier statue in Exeter, pictured below.

And, of course, even if you manage to walk away from your heist physically unharmed, being caught and having a criminal record of any kind will likely have a detrimental impact on training contract and pupillage chances.

The dangers of stealing traffic cones are, therefore, potentially grave, even if they are narrow and unlikely. It’s enough to put some law students off cone-nabbing. One said:

“A few of my housemates have [taken street cones] before. They were always drunk and found it funny. I however, being a law student can only look at the harmful ramifications that can come from stealing them and other warning signs. Being a law student has made me think more holistically about dangers little things can make.”

Whether you’re as thoughtful as our above law student or not, maybe it’s time to break the mould and move away from stealing traffic cones and road signs to bigger, better and less life-endangering things (or preferably nothing). Pint glasses and beer mats are common alternatives. One law student suggests the inflatables university club nights often use to deck out otherwise average-looking venues. Mini ducks, crowns and masks also got a namecheck. Much more attractive than potentially life-saving traffic equipment.