Being in control of a moving vehicle is serious business. If you can’t or won’t dedicate your full attention to the driving process, it’s a guarantee that you’re going to endanger yourself and others. Perhaps the biggest distraction of all – when behind the wheel, or in daily life – comes in the form of mobile phones. By now, we’re all well aware of the threat they pose to driver safety, but that didn’t stop 1 in 10 drivers from government research focus groups using their handheld device for calls or texts while in control of their car last year.
But what are the government and the police doing to tackle this potentially deadly problem? The rules and regulations surrounding mobile phone use while driving are constantly scrutinised and often amended, so let’s take a look at the current UK driving laws including the use of mobile phones.
Is Driving While Using a Mobile Phone a Criminal Offence?
Absolutely. Operating “a phone, sat nav, tablet, or any device that can send or receive data, while driving or riding a motorcycle” is breaking the law and will leave you facing some of the more severe punishments applicable to the world of driving. GOV.UK clarifies, saying that any use of a relevant device, whether online or offline, is a criminal offence, regardless of what you’re using it for.
There are even some situations that might catch you out. Don’t think you’re clear to browse the internet or take a few selfies while you’re:
- Stopped at traffic lights
- Queuing in traffic
- Supervising a learner driver
- Driving a car that turns off the engine when you stop moving (stop/start technology)
- Using a device that’s offline or in flight mode
You may feel like these conditions, in particular those during which the car is stopped, are safe breaks for you to quickly check your socials, but as far as the law is concerned, you are still in control of a motor vehicle and need to give the road your full attention.
On the contrary, there are actually some exceptions to the rulings, which GOV.UK specifies. You can use a typically-forbidden device if:
- You need to contact emergency services and cannot find a suitable place to stop the vehicle
- You’re safely parked (engine & lights off, handbrake on)
- You’re paying for something via contactless payment, like at a drive-through
- You’re using a device which helps you to park
What Is the Penalty For Using a Mobile Phone While Driving?
Driving offence penalties can be pretty serious, and the punishment for failing to abide by these rules is no exception. Get caught – even just once – and you’re looking at a fine of £200 and six penalty points on your licence. If you passed your driving test within two years of the charge, you’ll lose your licence. This is a general rule for any driver who accrues six points within their first two years on the road.
But it gets worse. You can have three penalty points added to your licence simply by obscuring the view of the road and traffic ahead, or if you can’t effectively control the vehicle. Of course, there are many creative ways that you could fall foul of this rule, but it’s mostly referring to the placement of any devices that you attach to the dashboard or windscreen. If you’ve ever passed another car and noticed that their suction cup phone holder seemed to be dead in the centre of their field of view, then you probably thought it was idiotic. The police would agree with you, and if stopped, that driver will be awarded the three points.
Finally, if you’re stopped for using your phone at the wheel, whichever penalty you receive, there’s a chance that you could be summoned to court. This is bad news and can mean you’re about to receive an even harsher punishment. The fine can be increased substantially, to £1,000 (or £2,500 if you’re a bus or lorry driver) and you may even be banned from driving altogether.
Can You Use a Hands Free Phone on Speaker While Driving?
Cast your mind back to the ‘noughties’ and you might remember (or have purchased) one of those bulky, bluetooth hands free phone kits. You’d wear a fairly large earpiece and connect it to your phone via bluetooth, answer a call with the press of a button on the device and away you go. You’re chatting to your mates while you’re driving, but your hands are still firmly on the steering wheel.
Well, mobile phone technology has come on leaps and bounds since then, and now you can take and make phone calls by using voice commands and use the device’s speaker so that it’s like your friend is in the passenger seat next to you. It seems like this should be a completely legal workaround to avoid a prosecution, since you’re not touching, or even looking at, your phone.
And provided that’s exactly how you’re using (or not using) your phone, it is legal. You’re not allowed to handle the phone while driving, so hands free use is allowed. With the rise of virtual helpers like Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant, controlling your devices using your voice has never been easier. Just make sure it’s all set up and calibrated before you start your journey.
There is a slight caveat to this though. If you’re stopped by police because they believe your phone is distracting you, they can still issue you with points and a fine, regardless of your hands free usage.
Can I Hold My Phone While Driving?
Hands free kits came about for a reason, and this is it. It’s an offence to hold your phone, even if it’s obvious that you’re not using it. Err on the side of caution and leave your phone stuck to the windscreen or in one of your cup holders. Imagine losing your licence because you were holding your phone when you weren’t actually using it. Don’t run the risk.
Can You Report Someone For Using Their Phone While Driving?
If you spot someone using their phone while driving, or if someone you encounter regularly is a repeat offender, you might want to get the police involved before someone gets hurt. Luckily, there are ways to report offenders in the hopes of getting them off the road until they’ve learned the error of their ways.
Just remember that if you want to report someone, make sure you don’t break the law yourself by using your phone at the wheel. Yes, calling for help in an emergency makes you exempt from the mobile phone law yourself, but consider first if the situation you’re in really is worthy of a call to 999 or 112.
If it is, and you think someone’s mobile phone usage is putting themselves or others in immediate risk, you can call the emergency numbers listed above. Otherwise, there are three options:
- Call 101: The police’s non-emergency number can take reports of drivers distracted by their mobile phones
- Report it online: Some police forces allow you to report mobile phone users online, although for this you may need to attend a court date and present video evidence (dash cams or passenger-recorded videos would work) along with witness statements or further evidence.
- Crimestoppers: If you’re reporting someone who regularly uses their mobile phone while driving, call 0800 555 111 and speak to Crimestoppers.
Can You Use Your Phone As a Sat Nav While Driving?
Similar to the world’s reaction to bluetooth hands free kits, there was a time when seasoned drivers binned their road atlases and headed down to their nearest Woolworths in search of a high-tech new satellite navigation system. And then, also like hands free kits, they vanished.
Alright, they didn’t vanish and you can still buy them, but the vast majority of people now use their phone as a sat nav thanks to the many different route mapping apps on the market. The question often lingers though; is it legal to use your phone as a satnav while you’re driving?
You can set up your phone to operate as a sat nav, but you must not interact with the device while you’re driving. Set it up before you start the car, attach it to the windscreen in an appropriate position, and begin your journey.
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