The Government is to make it illegal to use hand-held phones in any way – including just touching them – under planned new legislation due from next year.
The legislation, currently under consultation, will close a current mobile phone loophole that means drivers can still legally use their phones to take a photo or play a game as such actions are not seen as ‘interactive telecommunication’.
It will mean that police will be able to take immediate action if they see a driver holding and using their phone at the wheel. The penalties in place for using a hand-held mobile phone while driving are six penalty points and a £200 fine.
Roads Minister Baroness Vere said: “Our roads are some of the safest in the world, but we want to make sure they’re safer still by bringing the law into the 21st century.
“That’s why we’re looking to strengthen the law to make using a hand-held phone while driving illegal in a wider range of circumstances – it’s distracting and dangerous and for too long risky drivers have been able to escape punishment, but this update will mean those doing the wrong thing will face the full force of the law.”
The consultation comes a year after MPs from the House of Commons’ Transport Select Committee said the practice of using a hand-held mobile phone or other device while driving was “still troublingly widespread and can have catastrophic consequences”.
It follows a legal case in July 2019 when a driver won a High Court appeal over a previous conviction for using his phone to film while driving past a crash in North London. Current legislation governing mobiles and motoring stipulates that an offence is committed if you’re using your phone for ‘interactive telecommunication’ while at the wheel. It was written back in 2003, prior to smartphones, and the High Court appeal saw lawyers successfully argue that using your phone’s camera while driving is not currently covered by the law.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said a year ago that he would take forwards legislation to close the loophole and, following a review of the offence, a consultation has now been launched on bringing the law into line with modern technology.
But the Government has shied away from the Transport Select Committee’s recommendation that hands-free phone usage should also be banned.
The consultation has been greeted by the National Police Chiefs’ Council as well as road safety organisations, including the AA.
Edmund King, AA president, said: “Phones do so much more than calls and texts, so it is only right that the law is changed to keep pace with technology. Tweets, TikTok and Instagram snaps can all wait until you park up.
“These new rules will clarify the law and help drivers realise that this dangerous act can have the same consequences and be as socially unacceptable as drink driving. If you can’t resist the temptation to pick up your phone, then you should convert your glovebox into a phone box.”
However, Brake said it still wants to see the dangers of hands-free devices addressed.
Joshua Harris, director of campaigns for the road safety charity, said: “This announcement is timely, with driver distraction an increasing scourge on our roads and a recent report revealing that one in 10 young drivers admit to playing games behind the wheel and a further 1 in 5 say they participate in video calls.
“When amending the law on phone use when driving, the Government must also take the opportunity to prohibit the use of hands-free devices. The current law gives the impression that it is safe to use a mobile phone with a hands-free kit when the evidence is clear that it is not. Banning hands-free devices may be challenging but we urge the Government to prioritise the lives of road users and take action now.”
Mobile phone usage is also under the spotlight in the Department for Transport review into roads policing, which will explore ways of reducing road casualties and deaths after a plateau in recent years.
Announced three months ago, the review included a call for evidence, led by the Roads Minister Baroness Vere, which said advances in vehicle infotainment systems and mobile phone technology have caused an increase in sources of distraction for drivers.
The Department for Transport’s consultation on closing the loophole on hand-held mobile phone usage closes at 11:59 on 17 January 2021.