Drivers are technically only banned from making calls or texting while in charge of a vehicle – with pressure mounting for the law to be brought up to date to include functions like taking a photo, watching videos or playing games.
The Department for Transport’s (DfT) has opened a consultation into widening the scope of “mobile use” under the law. The RAC commented that it is a positive step towards making phone use as socially unacceptable as drink-driving.
Hands-free phone use will still be allowed under the proposals, despite calls from some ministers that certain functions are just as distracting as hand-held use.
An exemption will be made under the plans to allow mobiles to be used for contactless payments –as long as the vehicle is stationary.
Pending the outcome of the consultation, the law change is expected to come into effect in early 2021 and would apply across the UK – with a punishment of six penalty points and a £200 fine.
An RAC spokesman said: “The closing of this loophole is very welcome and reflects the multitude of ways drivers can use hand-held phones when behind the wheel in 2020.
“It’s important that alongside this change to the law, the Government looks seriously at other options that can help enforce the law, which should include new camera technology that can detect different types of hand-held mobile phone use.”
Road safety organisation, IAM RoadSmart welcomed the consultation, saying: “Scientific research clearly demonstrates that a driver cannot safely control a car and make or take phone calls at the same time. Deaths and injury caused when a driver is distracted by a mobile phone are completely avoidable and a senseless waste of life.
“The number of casualties in crashes where a driver was using a mobile phone is difficult to establish. But research in simulators has shown drivers who use hands-free phones are up to four times more likely to be involved in a crash. Texting or smartphone use whilst driving increases reaction times by up to 35%.
“IAM RoadSmart research shows it can be more distracting than driving with alcohol or cannabis in your system. Conversations on hands-free mobile phones also distract and that is why our advice is to switch off before you drive off.”
IAM RoadSmart recommends:
- Continued education campaigns to reinforce and clarify the current laws
- Insurance companies should increase the premiums of those caught using a handheld phone or who have other phone related convictions
- Mobile phone, car makers and technology companies developing new products that reduce or remove completely the potential for phone use when a vehicle is in motion
- Increasing the fines and points tally for mobile phone use with high profile police enforcement of the current laws
- As part of their safety management policy companies should be encouraged to take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to phone use when driving on business
- Companies who actively force drivers to use mobiles when in motion should be prosecuted under corporate manslaughter or health and safety laws
- Social media and app providers should allocate part of their profits to road safety campaigns and issue frequent warnings about the dangers of using their products whilst driving.
Background and consultation details
The offence of using a hand-held mobile phone has been in place since 2003.
At the time when the offence was introduced, the main reason why people used a mobile
phone was to communicate, either with another person or with the internet. Accordingly,
the offence was couched in terms of "using" a hand-held mobile phone to perform a
function that involved "interactive communication".
Activities that will be captured under the revised offence
Drivers will be banned from using their mobile phone or similar device in the hand to:
• Compose text messages or e-mails to save in drafts
• Take photos or videos
• Use the phone's camera as a mirror
• Search for music stored on the phone
• Search for photos or other images stored in the phone
• Dictate voice messages into the phone
• Read a book downloaded on the phone
• Play a game downloaded on the phone
• Illuminate the screen
• Unlock the device
• Check the time
• Check notifications
• Reject a call
The consultation period began on 17 October 2020 and will run until 17 January 2021.