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Driving and mobile phone use

Published: 05/04/2017

Driving and mobile phone use

Most people know that using a hand-held mobile phone while driving is illegal, however, as of 1 March 2017 the penalty for getting caught doubled and now carries a penalty of six points and a £200 fine.

The RAC says that it has campaigned to change the law because “growing numbers of our members are frustrated at seeing other road users flout the law.”

Further RAC research has discovered that up to now, police forces had been able to offer awareness courses as an alternative to penalties. And that almost two in three drivers caught under the law chose an awareness course instead of points and a fine.

The Government has suggested that the use of educational courses should not be an option for those caught using a hand-held mobile phone behind the wheel, however, senior police officers have suggested that they wish to retain that option as an appropriate course of action in some cases.

Hands-free phone law

You can use a phone if it is fully hands-free – you’re not allowed to pick it up and operate it even momentarily. Hands-free devices must be set up before you drive, so you can take calls without handling the device.

The police still have the power to stop you if they believe you have been distracted by using a mobile phone while driving, even if it’s fully hands-free. Some road safety groups believe mobile phones should be completely switched off while driving, to avoid any distractions. 

Using a phone as a sat-nav law

You are not allowed to hold your mobile phone when using as a mapping device. The mobile phone law specifically prohibits this. If you wish to use smartphone navigation or a mapping app, fix the phone to the windscreen or dashboard, so it’s in clear view for use while driving, without requiring you to hold it. This is, for example, what many private hire and taxi drivers do.

When can you use a phone in your vehicle?

The law is clear on when you can use a hand-held device behind the wheel. It is only legal if you are safely parked – and this does not include waiting in traffic or when sat at the traffic lights. 

The law also includes a proviso for emergencies: you are allowed to make 999 or 112 calls on a hand-held device while driving, but only if it’s not otherwise safe to stop.

What if I’m not moving?

Contrary to what many drivers seem to think, the law still applies when your vehicle is stopped at lights or in a traffic queue. If your engine is running, your phone should be nowhere near your hands or eye line.

The RAC Report on Motoring 2016, showed that a staggering 47% of drivers said they think it’s OK to check social media or text messages while stopped in traffic. 

Using hands-free phone kits is currently legal in the UK, although police still have the right to penalise any hands-free user they think is being distracted and isn’t in control of their vehicle. 

Why have the changes been made?

The Department for Transport (DfT) said mobile phone use while driving "has a worse impact on driving ability than being above the drink driving limit" and is introducing its new rules after a consultation last year.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling says increasing fixed penalties will be a “strong deterrent”. And that’s what is needed. Figures for 2015 show 22 people were killed and 99 seriously injured in accidents on UK roads where mobile phone use was a contributing factor.

Could I lose my licence?

The changes mean that if a new driver (someone who has held a licence for less than two years) is caught using a hand-held device behind the wheel, they will lose their licence. Drivers are only allowed to clock up six penalty points in their first two years of driving, rather than the normal 12.

More experienced motorists can lose their licence if they receive 12 points in a three-year period – so just two mobile phone incidents under the new law. 

Also if the police feel it is a particularly extreme example of using a mobile phone behind the wheel, the driver could be taken to court and get a maximum fine of £1,000 (£2,500 if you’re driving a lorry or bus).  Guilty drivers could also face disqualification.

Motorists involved in an accident caused by using a hand-held device behind the wheel face stiff penalties as well. For example, the government is considering increasing the penalty for causing death by dangerous or careless driving from 14 years to life imprisonment. A two-year driving ban is also obligatory. HGV drivers face the same sanctions.

Mobile phone use: the stats

Despite it being illegal, one in five motorists admit they check social media in traffic, according to the 2016 RAC Report on Motoring. This is a 15% increase on 2015 figures. Indeed, almost one in two drivers will use their phone for calls while stuck in traffic.

14% say they take images or video while driving, 20% have written emails, texts or social media updates behind the wheel, and a stout 6% admit they use their hand-held phone “most or all of the time” while driving.

The RAC Report on Motoring says “it is difficult to say to what extent the distractions from hand-held mobile phone use cause accidents, or whether this problem has become more acute, but it is likely that official statistics understate the problem”. In other words, however alarming the stats are here, the reality is probably even worse still.

Advice and apps to help you stop using your phone

The easiest way to not be distracted by using your mobile phone in the car is to switch it off. Treat the cabin of your car like you do an aircraft, and put your phone into flight-safe mode before you drive. The liberation you feel when driving without worrying about the phone is really satisfying. 

If you have to stay in touch, make sure your phone is paired up to Bluetooth, so you can still take calls. Bluetooth devices cost little and, increasingly, modern cars have Bluetooth connectivity as standard. But place the phone in the glovebox or keep it in your pocket, case or handbag, out of sight, with the sound turned off, so you won’t be distracted by the screen lighting up or message alert sounds. 

Some drivers use their smartphone’s ‘do not disturb’ mode while driving, which will only allow calls from favoured numbers, silencing all other calls and alerts.

There are apps to help you beat any addiction to using a hand-held phone behind the wheel. One of the most popular is called LifeSaver, available for iOS and Android devices. This cleverly uses a combination of GPS monitoring and a rewards system to help overcome distracted driving. It blocks the phone while driving (including text messages), and can automatically alert others that you’ve arrived safely at your destination, if you wish.

There’s an online ‘Driver Portal’ Lifesaver dashboard that can be accessed by parents or commercial fleet managers, to reward drivers using the app and building up points. This will also, however, display transgressions.

The DfT was reportedly considering implementing new technology that would block phone signal for drivers. 

The software would make mobiles virtually useless by disabling any function that requires internet access or connection to a telephone network.

The move came after almost one in three motorists admitted to having used their phone while driving.

How can I report offenders?

Members of the public can report repeat offenders anonymously by calling Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.

And if you're having trouble getting your head around why it matters – just consider this:

In 2016 Tracy Houghton, 45, her sons, Ethan, 13, Josh, 11, and stepdaughter, Aimee, 11, died instantly when Tomasz Kroker drove his lorry into their car at 50mph. Their car was shunted underneath the back of a heavy goods vehicle and crushed to a third of its size. Tomasz Kroker was scrolling through music on his mobile when he hit their car. The lorry driver was jailed for 10 years.

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