Road transport: harmonisation of legislation

It is impossible to create a single European market for road transport without harmonising the relevant legal provisions in force in the Member States. The measures adopted by the EU are of a fiscal, technical, administrative and social nature.

Legal basis

Title VI of the Lisbon Treaty, and in particular Article 91 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).


A common road transport policy which safeguards fair conditions of competition and guarantees the freedom to provide services calls for the harmonisation of the relevant legal provisions in force in the Member States. This applies not only to taxation (VAT, vehicle taxes and fuel taxes) and state aid, but also to technical specifications (maximum authorised dimensions and weights), social provisions and measures to protect the environment.


a.Tax and technical harmonisation

1.Excise duty system

Council Directive 2003/96/EC of 27 October 2003 restructuring the Community framework for the taxation of energy products replaced the two Council Directives 92/81/EEC and 92/82/EEC on the harmonisation of the structures of excise duties on mineral oils (see fact sheet 5.11.3).

2.Infrastructure charging

On 8 July 2008 the Commission presented a package of initiatives to make transport greener (‘Greening Transport’ package). These initiatives provide a transparent and generally applicable model for calculating all external costs, including environment-, noise-, congestion- and health-related costs. This model served as the basis for the calculations of infrastructure charges in the context of the revision of the ‘Eurovignette’ Directive (see below) and prefigured a strategy for the gradual application of this model to all modes of transport. Directive 1999/62/EC of 17 June 1999 remains the reference point when it comes to charging infrastructure costs to transport undertakings. It was amended by Directive 2006/38/EC of 17 May 2006 and Directive 2011/76/EU of 27 September 2011. The revision of the 1999 Eurovignette Directive, which is based on the ‘polluter-pays’ principle and the internalisation of the external costs of road transport, aims to ensure that the costs of infrastructure use by heavy goods vehicles are reflected in the charges. With that aim in view, the charges can be modulated in order to take account of noise and air pollution and the risks associated with congestion. These charges come on top of the existing tolls, which are calculated on the basis of distance travelled in order to recover the costs of constructing, operating and developing the infrastructure concerned. The most important upshot of the compromise reached in 2011 by Parliament and the Council concerns transparency of revenues and investments. Member States may modulate infrastructure charges in order to take account of road congestion and these charges may vary by up to 175% during peak periods (up to five hours per day). Member States may offset this by imposing lower charges outside peak hours. The charge variation must be transparent, non-discriminatory and applied to all users equally. The issue of the earmarking of toll revenues, which was a major concern, was resolved by the Member States undertaking to reinvest the revenue from infrastructure charges and charges to cover external costs in specific projects of a high European interest (TEN-T: Annex III to Decision No 661/2010/EU) and to make transport more sustainable. In mountain regions, a mark-up on the infrastructure charge may be added for the most polluting heavy goods vehicles (EURO emission classes 0, I and II, and class III from 2015). In that event, the revenue must be invested in priority projects of European interest. No later than 31 October 2015, the Commission is to submit a report to the European Parliament and the Council on the implementation and impact of this directive, in particular as regards the effectiveness of the provisions on the recovery of the costs related to traffic-based pollution and on the inclusion of vehicles of more than 3.5 and less than 12 tonnes.

3.Maximum authorised dimensions and weights

Directive 96/53/EC of 25 July 1996 laying down the maximum authorised dimensions and weights of national and international vehicles is the reference text used to set the maximum dimensions of heavy goods vehicles circulating between the Member States. This directive was amplified and amended by Directive 97/27/EC of 22 July 1997 and Directive 2002/7/EC of 18 February 2002, which aim to harmonise the maximum dimensions of buses to allow for free circulation within the EU and, in particular, to ensure that cabotage operations for passenger transport work efficiently. However, Article 4 of Directive 96/53/EC grants some national derogations: Member States may allow vehicles to be put into circulation which exceed the limits referred to in the annex to the directive (18.75 m and 40 t) to carry out transport operations which are considered not significantly to affect international competition in the transport sector, for example, operations linked to logging and the forestry industry. The Member States must inform the Commission of the measures taken. Derogations from the maximum dimensions and weights are authorised on a trial basis only at national level. On 15 April 2013 a proposal for a directive was submitted to Parliament and the Council which aims to authorise the cross-border circulation of longer heavier lorries (mega trucks) in Europe (see also the role of the European Parliament).

b.Administrative harmonisation

1.Legal obligations for drivers

Directive 91/439/EEC of 29 June 1991 on driving licences harmonised the format of licences and categories of vehicles, introduced the principle of mutual recognition and laid down basic requirements in respect of health and competence. Directive 96/47/EC of 23 July 1996 provided for an alternative credit-card format for driving licences. The third directive on driving licences (Directive 2006/126/EC of 20 December 2006) makes this credit-card format compulsory for all licences issued in the EU as from 19 January 2013. Furthermore, all the existing paper licences in circulation must be converted to the new plastic-card format when they are renewed or by 2033 at the latest. All new licences will be valid for a fixed period (from 10 to 15 years, depending on the country, for motorcycles and cars and five years for lorries and buses) and they will be valid throughout the EU. At present there are some 110 different driving-licence formats in the EU. The harmonisation is intended to meet the following three objectives: combating fraud, guaranteeing free circulation and improving road safety. Driving-licence tourism, for example, will no longer be possible when each individual holds a single driving licence and when applicants can no longer be issued with a driving licence if they have had a licence restricted, suspended or withdrawn in another Member State. The Commission will report on the implementation of this directive, including its impact on road safety, no earlier than by 19 January 2018. For lorry-driver attestation, introduced by Regulation (EC) No 484/2002 of 1 March 2002, and the certificate of professional aptitude regulated by Directive 2003/59/EC of 15 July 2003, please see the previous fact sheet on road transport.

2.Vehicle registration

Council Directive 1999/37/EC of 29 April 1999 (amended by Directive 2003/127/EC) harmonises vehicle registration documents and simplifies checks on ownership and transfers between residents of two different Member States. Council Regulation (EC) No 2411/98 of 3 November 1998 on the recognition in intra-Community traffic of the distinguishing sign of the Member State in which motor vehicles and their trailers are registered makes it compulsory for registration plates to display the retro-reflecting European flag and for the distinguishing sign of the Member State to be affixed on the far left of the registration plate. In the 2010 EU citizenship report entitled ‘Dismantling the obstacles to EU citizens’ rights’ the Commission singled out vehicle registration problems as one of the main obstacles to the free movement of goods. The report proposed the simplification of vehicle registration formalities in another EU Member State, saving businesses, individuals and public bodies approximately EUR 1.5 billion. When the proposal enters into force, people who spend part of the year at a holiday home in another EU country, for example, will not be obliged to re-register their vehicles, while those residing permanently in another EU country will have six months to re-register their vehicles.

c.Social harmonisation

1.Working time

The transport sector was excluded from the scope of Directive 93/104/EC of 23 November 1993 concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time. Directive 2002/15/EC of 11 March 2002 on the organisation of the working time of persons performing mobile road transport activities seeks to lay down minimum requirements in relation to working time in order to improve the health and safety of drivers. Under the directive, average weekly working time is 48 hours. This may be increased to 60 hours provided that an average of 48 hours per week is not exceeded in any four-month period. In October 2008 the Commission submitted a proposal for a directive amending Directive 2002/15/EC, excluding self-employed drivers from its scope. The European Parliament on the other hand opposed their exclusion.

2.Driving time and rest periods established by the European Social Regulation (ESR)

Rules on maximum driving time per day and per week, breaks and minimum daily rest periods are laid down in Regulation (EC) No 561/2006 of 15 March 2006 repealing Regulation (EEC) No 3820/85 of 20 December 1985. The regulation applies to drivers transporting goods (vehicles exceeding 3.5 tonnes) or passengers (vehicles carrying more than nine people). It also introduced more frequent breaks and improved and simplified checking and penalty measures. Regulation (EC) No 561/2006 also amended Regulation (EEC) No 3821/85 of 20 December 1985, making the digital tachograph mandatory; the tachograph, because it cannot be tampered with, facilitates the detection of infringements of the ESR. Directive 2006/22/EC of 15 March 2006 lays down minimum requirements for the implementation of the aforementioned regulations and stipulates the minimum number of checks (at least 3% of days worked by drivers in 2010) to be carried out by the Member States in order to monitor compliance with the rules on driving time, breaks and rest periods. The replacement of analogue tachographs with digital tachographs was expected gradually to clear the way for a greater volume of data to be checked more swiftly and more precisely, thereby making it possible for the Member States to carry out more checks.

As part of the road transport package (see fact sheet 5.6.3, paragraph 2c), Regulation (EC) No 1073/2009 of 21 October 2009 amended Regulation (EC) No 561/2006, reintroducing the ‘12-day rule’ whereby coach or bus drivers engaged in providing a single occasional passenger service may work for up to 12 consecutive days (instead of the maximum of six consecutive days) provided that it is an international transport occasional service (and the service includes at least one 24-hour period in a country other than that in which the journey started). The derogation is permitted only on the basis of very strict conditions, which maintain road safety and require drivers to take weekly rest periods immediately before and after the service. Other conditions will be added from 1 January 2014: the vehicle must be equipped with a digital tachograph and in cases where a driver works between 22.00 and 6.00, either the driver’s shift will be reduced by three hours or there will be other drivers on board to take over.

Role of the European Parliament

Parliament has used its legislative powers to support, in principle, most of the Commission’s proposals for harmonisation, whilst at the same time emphasising certain aspects to which it attaches particular importance.

  • When the last revision of the Eurovignette Directive was carried out, Parliament stressed the importance of the environmental aspects, with the result that from the second half of 2013 toll prices may include the costs of noise and air pollution. This outcome, which is ‘the bare minimum we need to ensure the application of the “polluter pays” principle’, was achieved thanks to the unwavering determination of the Committee on Transport.
  • Despite securing more stringent checks on driving time and breaks, Parliament has consistently argued for effective social harmonisation in the EU. To this end Parliament called on the Commission, before the end of 2013, to review the regulatory framework governing driving and rest periods in passenger and goods transport and to improve the harmonisation of the application and control of the rules. The report (COM(2014) 0222 final), adopted on 14 April 2014, sets out the development of the road haulage market and describes the social dimension of the road haulage sector. The report’s recommendations include more effective checks and improved working conditions so as to counteract the effects of major long-term changes, starting with the shortage of drivers (see also Parliament’s role in fact sheet 5.7.3). Parliament also secured agreement that the provisions of Directive 2002/15/EC would apply to self-employed drivers (approximately 20% of road haulage drivers) as from 2009.
  • On 15 April 2014, Parliament rejected the changes that the Commission wanted to make to the maximum weights and measures authorised under Directive 96/53/EC. It also asked the Commission to carry out an adequate impact assessment on mega trucks so it could report to Parliament by 2016.
  • On 9 September 2015, in its resolution on the implementation of the 2011 White Paper on Transport 'taking stock and the way forward towards sustainable mobility', Parliament called on the Commission to propose additional legislative measures in certain areas mentioned above (see Achievements). It called in particular for a review of the third Driving Licence Directive (Directive 2006/126/EC) in order to reinforce the requirements for the issue of driving licences and the training of drivers, and a review of Directive (EU) 2015/719 of 29 April 2015, amending Directive 96/53/EC, on the maximum authorised dimensions and weights in national and/or international traffic.

Christina Ratcliff