Mobile phones and driving

We all know we shouldn't be using a phone whilst driving, and with harsher penalties now in place for those that are caught, it's worth knowing the rules.

Since December 2003 it's been illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone whilst driving or stopped in traffic. Motorists who continue to do this are not only risking a fine and points on their license, they're also endangering themselves and others. We want everyone to stay safe on the roads; motorists, cyclists and pedestrians, which is why we've written this guide to staying safe and staying on the right side of the law.

Then on 25 March 2022, the law that governs mobile phone use while driving in Britain was amended to account for the constant evolution of technology.

In this article, we look at this law in more detail and the impact of the recent amendment.

What was the original law?

Legislation to cover the use of a handheld mobile phone or similar device while driving was originally written in 2003 (under Regulation 110 of the Road Vehicles (Construction & Use) Regulations 1986). Under this legislation, it was an offence to use a handheld mobile phone or similar device while you were driving in Great Britain, even if your usage didn’t result in an accident.

However, the definition of 'using' these devices was very narrow and the wording only specified 'interactive communication'. While this was sufficient to cover the features and capabilities of handheld devices in 2003, such as taking phone calls, sending texts and accessing the internet, the same couldn’t be said of more sophisticated modern devices.

This led to a loophole in the law for modern drivers, where they could be using their phone for a 'standalone' function such as taking pictures or scrolling through a playlist and not trigger an offence, since it technically fell outside the parameters of interactive communication listed in the legislation.

How has the law changed?

The government believes that any and all use of a mobile phone or similar device while driving creates equal risk, and so the law has been amended to encompass more of the capabilities of modern technology.

Under the new legislation, the definition of 'using' a phone or similar device includes the following:

  • illuminating the screen
  • checking the time
  • checking notifications
  • unlocking the device
  • making, receiving, or rejecting a telephone or internet-based call
  • sending, receiving, or uploading oral or written content
  • sending, receiving, or uploading a photo or video
  • utilising camera, video, or sound recording
  • drafting any text
  • accessing any stored data such as documents, books, audio files, photos, videos, films, playlists, notes or messages
  • accessing an app
  • accessing the internet

Specifying these other uses takes the progression of modern technology into account and clearly defines what actions are illegal, helping to keep everyone safer on the road.

In order to further clarify the rules, the amended regulation also specifies that it will cover any device capable of interactive communication, ‘even if that functionality is not enabled at the time.' This means that even if your device's mobile data is turned off or the device is in flight mode, the offence will still be triggered, and you’ll be breaking the law. This carries a minimum penalty of six points on your license and a £200 fine, meaning that a driver would only need to commit the offence twice before losing their license. You could also lose your licence if you passed your driving test in the last 2 years. For more information on the penalties please click here.

Are there any exceptions?

As with the previous version of the law, there will be some exceptions. One that remains unchanged is the ability to use a mobile or similar device in an emergency. This is defined by the legislation as 'where a person makes a call to the emergency services on '999' or '112' in response to a genuine emergency where it is unsafe or impracticable to cease driving while the call is being made.'

There is also a new exception: a handheld mobile or similar device can be used in a car to make a contactless payment at a payment terminal (e.g. when you’re paying for a drive-through meal). The vehicle must be stationary, and the item or service you're paying for must be provided at the time of payment, or after. Again, the change is intended to bring the law up to date with modern technology such as contactless payments.

The law also specifies that using a mobile phone for navigation will remain legal only so long as the device sits in a holder, and not in your hand or on the passenger seat.

You can read both the old law and the new amendment on the UK legislation website, as well as the explanatory notes for the change provided by the government, to find out more.

Going hands-free

If you're worried about missing important phone calls, your best bet is to invest in a hands-free system. There are a number of devices that let you pick up your calls and texts such as Bluetooth car kitsDAB radios and sat navs.

However, you still need to be vigilant whilst using a hands-free system. You can still be pulled over if the police think you're distracted, so keep hands-free calls short and call the person back once you're safely parked.

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