Next Friday 25 March will see the long-awaited introduction of tougher laws on motorists who use their mobile phones while driving.
Since 2003, it has been illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving Regulation 110 of the Road Vehicles (Construction & Use) Regulations 1986.
However, that regulation provides that for the offence to be committed, the driver would have to be using the device for “interactive communication,” as this article published by the House of Commons Library explains.
But with the rise of smartphones over the past 15 years or so, the legislation has quickly become outdated, with mobile devices able to carry out any number of functions, including playback or recording of video, or playing music, with users able to change songs via the app they are using – something that potentially distracts from driving.
The lack of effectiveness of the current law was highlighted in the 2019 case DPP v Barreto where it was found that a motorist filming the aftermath of a road traffic collision while driving was not guilty of an offence, because he was not using the device for interactive communication.
The Statutory Instrument bringing the relevant changes to the law into effect was laid before Parliament on 1 February this year.
Under the new legislation, even putting a mobile phone in ‘flight mode’ while driving will not enable someone using it to claim they were complying with the law, with the government making it clear in the Statutory Instrument that the offence “will cover any device which is capable of interactive communication even if that functionality is not enabled at the time.”
The legislation makes it clear that “using” a mobile phone will now encompass all of the following:
illuminating the screen
checking the time
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 message
accessing an app
accessing the internet.
Using a hand-held mobile phone for in an emergency situation will still be allowed, and the law has also been expanded to enable drivers to use the phone as a contactless payment device, for instance at a drive-thru or tollbooth or car park, provided the vehicle is stationary and the goods or services paid for are supplied at the same time.
Hands-free mobile use, for example for making or receiving voice calls, will also continue to be permitted (drivers can be prosecuted for offences such as driving without due care and attention if they are found to be distracted, of course) as will using the device for satellite navigation purposes, provided it is kept in a cradle.
The minimum penalty for using a hand-held mobile phone at the wheel will continue to be a fine of £200 and six penalty points on the motorist’s driving licence, while new drivers who have held their licence for two years or less would have it revoked.
The need for the law to be tightened up was highlighted by a recent case in which Mike van Erp –known as CyclingMikey on social media – filmed the former Chelsea and England footballer Frank Lampard apparently using a mobile phone at the wheel and holding a coffee cup in his other hand.
The Crown Prosecution Service however dropped a planned prosecution ahead of the scheduled court date citing lack of evidence that an offence had been committed, including presumably that Lampard had been using the device for interactive communication.
Similarly, in March last year we reported how a road.cc reader who had submitted footage to police of a van driver holding a phone could not be referred for prosecution, with Hertfordshire Police saying they were unable to do so because of the Barreto case.
“We must be realistic with what we can prove in a court of law and unfortunately in this case we cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt any offences,” the force said.
However, the driver was sent a warning letter, and police “advised them that should future incidents occur this will be taken into account when dealing with them.”
Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.