The rules on using your mobile phone while driving

Gareth Herincx / 25 April 2016 ( 06 March 2017 )

It's illegal to make calls on your mobile phone while driving but can you text? Is it ok if you use a hands-free device?



It's been illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone whilst driving since December 1, 2003, yet hardly a week goes by when the issue isn't in the news.

Official government figures show that mobile phone-related car crashes killed 67 people between 2012-14.

The president of the AA, Edmund King, said: “This epidemic of hand-held mobile phone use while driving has already cost lives and drivers have demanded action.

"Three-quarters of drivers see others using mobile phones while driving on some or most journeys, with one-quarter seeing it on every journey."

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The law on using a mobile phone while driving

'The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2003' prohibits motorists using a hand-held mobile phone, or similar device, while driving. It also made it an offence to use a hand-held mobile phone while supervising a driver who only has a provisional licence.

It’s also illegal to use your phone to follow a map, read a text or check social media, and it applies even if you’re stopped at traffic lights or queuing in traffic, so you should not use that time to make or receive a call.

Hands-free phones are not prohibited. However, they are a distraction, and you risk prosecution for not having proper control of a vehicle if the police see you driving poorly while using one. You must also not touch the hands-free device at any point whilst the car's engine is running. 

The regulations apply equally to drivers of all types of motor vehicle – cars, motorcycles, goods vehicles, buses, coaches and taxis.

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Texting while driving

There’s a common misconception that the law simply prohibits motorists from using their mobile phone to make calls and that texting while driving is acceptable. This is not the case.

The use of a mobile phone or similar device for texting, accessing the internet or making a video call, for instance, is also prohibited if the phone (or other device) has to be held in order to operate it.

Worryingly, a survey for BCA (British Car Auctions) in 2015 found that 42% of drivers admitted using a mobile phone while at the wheel.

More than a quarter (27%) admitted to texting while driving; 13% had taken a photo and 6% admitted to accessing social media.

People who use their mobile phones while driving are more likely to be sending texts or using social media than making a phone call, according to the Department for Transport.

It carried out observations at 60 sites in five areas of England and 30 locations in Scotland during 2014 and, overall, it found that 1.1% of drivers were holding a mobile in their hand compared with 0.5% with a phone to their ear.

If you’re still in any doubt about the dangers associated with texting whilst driving, look at this shocking video produced by Gwent Police in 2009. We warn you, the content is graphic, but it will make you think again… 

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Exemptions

The only situation in which you can use your phone while driving is if you need to dial 999 or 112. 

This is only allowed if there is a genuine emergency where it is unsafe or impractical to stop.

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Penalties

From March 2017, if you are caught using a hand-held mobile phone while driving you could get an automatic fixed penalty notice with six penalty points on your driving licence and a fine of £200. It’s also worth noting that your car insurance costs are likely to increase.

You could also end up in court, be disqualified from driving and get a maximum fine of £1,000 (£2,500 for drivers of goods vehicles or passenger carrying vehicles with nine or more passenger seats).

However, in serious cases, you could be prosecuted for careless driving or dangerous driving which carry much higher penalties. If you kill someone in an accident because of using a mobile phone while driving, you can expect a prison sentence.

Causing death by dangerous driving carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

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Is there a defence?

To be guilty of using a hand-held mobile phone while at the wheel, a motorist must physically be holding the mobile phone in his or her hand, be driving the vehicle and be using the device. If a police officer sees you, or you are caught on camera, you can be charged.

There’s some debate over what constitutes “using” a device, but in theory, just looking at a screen, reading a text message or touching the keys is enough to be prosecuted.

Apart from technical procedural arguments, the only defence really is to prove that you were not driving at the time of the offence.

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Government crackdown on driving whilst using a mobile phone

Motorists who use a mobile phone while driving face tougher penalties than ever before after government plans announced in late 2015 were implemented in March 2017 – in order to reduce the number of cyclists and other road users killed and injured on our roads every year.

Over 4000 responses from individuals and organisations were collated during a consultation ending in March 2016 – and of those, 99% agreed that driving whilst using a hand-held mobile phone is a dangerous activity, and 96% declared they were in favour of increased sanctions for this offence.

In their response to the consultation, the RAC stated that "there is a substantial body of evidence from around the world that confirms that using a hand-held mobile phone whilst driving is a major distraction and can increase the chances of a road traffic accident."

Under the 2015 proposal, fixed penalty fines were originally suggested to increase from £100 to £150 and penalty points would rise from three to four – and from three to six for drivers of large vehicles such as HGVs.

However, the overwhelming opinion of the respondents to the consultation was that this wasn’t a strong enough deterrent, and with this in mind, the penalty for using a mobile phone whilst driving doubled from £100 to £200 – and the penalty points went up from three to six, regardless of vehicle.

New drivers who passed their test in the last two years will have their licence revoked on their first offence of driving whilst using a mobile phone.

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A final thought

And finally, we’ll leave you with this thought. A 2016 survey carried out by Wunelli, a provider of vehicle telematics for insurance companies, gathered data on more than 4,000 drivers over a period of 18 months.

Its study suggested that the risk of an accident almost doubles when using a mobile phone at the wheel. For instance, drivers using a phone illegally tend to drop their speed by a third on average, suggesting a high level of distraction.

Ultimately, if you have to use your mobile phone, pull over,  park safely and turn the engine off, but not on the motorway hard shoulder.

And if someone you call answers the phone whilst they’re driving, firmly ask them to call you back when they have parked up safely or reached their destination.

As the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) noted during the government’s consultation, "using a mobile phone, whether hand-held or hands-free, while driving is dangerous. It is also unnecessary. Drivers can switch off their phone and let it take messages, and return messages, make calls or send texts when they have stopped in a safe place."

For more tips and useful information, browse our motoring articles.

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