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Mobile phone laws and driving

Apr 16, 2021

Do you call your mates while driving to tell them you’re running late? Or find yourself scrolling through social media while waiting at traffic lights?

If so, you could find yourself stopped by the police, fined, and given points on your licence. You’ll even face a driving ban if you’ve only recently passed your test.

There are strict laws governing the use of mobile phones while in charge of a motor. So what are the rules and the penalties? How can you stay on the right side of them?

Avoiding mobile phone usage while behind the wheel is just one way to stay safe on the road and bring down the cost of your insurance for young drivers. Read on to find out more.

What are the laws around mobile phone usage?

The sight of drivers clamping phones to their ear with one hand while steering their vehicle with the other is a common one.

But the law is clear: using a hand-held mobile phone for calls or messages while in charge of a car has been illegal since 2003. It applies not only when your car is moving, but also when you’ve stopped at traffic lights or in traffic jams.

Until you’re parked with the engine turned off, you must not use your hand-held device – unless you’re dialling for emergency assistance and it’s unsafe to stop. Passengers supervising learner drivers are also covered by this law.

Using a hand-held mobile phone for calls or messages while in charge of a car has been illegal since 2003.

A man driving a car with passengers using his mobile phone
How are the laws changing in 2021?

For several years, there has been a legal loophole. Before 2021, only “interactive communication” with mobile phones was banned, i.e. making or receiving calls, and sending or reading text messages.

However, using your mobile phone for taking photos or videos, playing games, or scrolling through a playlist was not explicitly banned. Motorists could instead be stopped for driving without due care and attention, but this carries a lesser penalty.

That loophole is now closing. From spring 2021, any usage of a hand-held mobile phone is illegal while behind the wheel of a car.

There is an exception for drive-through businesses, for example takeaways, where it is permitted to use your phone to pay for goods or services.

Of course, you can also dial 999 or 112 if you’re in an emergency situation – but only if you cannot safely pull over.

What are the penalties for mobile phone usage?

If you’re a new driver, you might be shocked to learn that the simple act of sending a text while stuck in a traffic jam could actually see you lose your licence.

If the police catch you driving while using your mobile phone, you’re likely to receive a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN).

Originally, drivers caught in the act faced a £30 fine. That was increased in 2007 to three penalty points on your licence plus a £100 fine.

Since 2017, the penalty has been six points plus a £200 fine. For drivers who passed their tests less than two years previously, gaining six points means losing their licence.

If the police believe your mobile phone usage is particularly extreme, they can choose to prosecute you rather than issue a FPN. In court, you could face a fine of up to £1,000 – or £2,500 if you’re driving a lorry or bus – and disqualification from driving.

If you are found guilty of causing an accident while using your handheld mobile, the penalties are even stiffer. If the accident causes death, you could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

Even if your device is hands-free and you are not touching it, police can issue you with a FPN and three penalty points if you don’t have a full view of the road ahead, or if you’re not in proper control of your vehicle.

As well as a fine and the potential loss of your licence, you face a hike in your insurance premiums when you get back behind the wheel. If you’re under 25, you can probably ill afford that further rise in cost, as car insurance for young drivers even for those with a clean driving record tends to be expensive.

Since 2017, the penalty has been six points plus a £200 fine. For drivers who passed their tests less than two years previously, gaining six points means losing their licence.

A young woman using her phone with one hand whilst driving
Why is mobile phone usage banned?

Simple: it’s highly distracting. At a time when you need to be focused on the road, with your hands operating the controls, you are instead gazing at a screen or operating a device.

Research has shown that drivers who use mobiles will scan the road less, are more likely to weave between lanes, and have less control over their vehicle. They can also fail to see road signs or maintain a steady speed, and are more likely to tailgate the vehicle in front or enter unsafe gaps in traffic. Plus, they might be thinking about the conversation rather than the road.

The statistics show how dangerous mobile phone usage is while driving. According to official figures, it was a contributory factor in 103 serious accidents and 17 fatal ones in the UK in 2019.

What about hands-free devices?

You are allowed to make hands-free calls. This is controversial, as some studies suggest that even hands-free mobile phone usage is a distraction for drivers, as they might focus on chatting or viewing a screen rather than the traffic.

In 2019, a Commons Transport Committee published a report stating that hands-free devices carried the same risks as handheld phones. However, the Government decided against introducing laws banning such devices.

Take note: your mobile phone usage must be properly hands-free – you shouldn’t even touch the screen while driving, but must instead use voice activation or get a passenger to handle the device.

What about sat navs?

The same laws apply to mobile phones used as sat navs: you can’t touch them while you’re in charge of a vehicle.

So it’s important that you programme in your destination before you set off. If you need to change your route for any reason, you must pull over and park before typing in a new destination.

your mobile phone usage must be properly hands-free – you shouldn’t even touch the screen while driving

A passenger using their mobile phone for navigation to show the driver directions
Where should you mount a hands-free device?

You need to set your gadget up before embarking on your journey, and make sure it’s securely mounted in a way that does not obscure your view of the road or traffic ahead.

You can be stopped by the police if they believe you are being distracted by a hands-free device or if it’s blocking your view, and issued with an FPN.

Vehicle manufacturers also warn you should avoid placing your device above or in front of an airbag, where it could distract you if it falls down, or anywhere that could interfere with the controls of your car.

So if your sat nav is not built into your car, where’s the best place to position it so you don’t fall foul of driving laws?

This isn’t laid down in law, but the best places are considered to be low down on the right of your windscreen, or stuck to the air vents on your car dashboard. You can buy special holders to keep your device secure in either position.

When choosing the right spot for your device, it’s best to sit in the driver’s seat and make sure it’s correctly adjusted for you. Then try out your device in different positions to check your vision is unobstructed.

How many people use their mobile phones behind the wheel?

According to an RAC report from 2019, a quarter of all drivers admit to making or receiving calls while driving, at least occasionally. Some 16% send emails, messages or post on social media, and the same proportion takes photos, videos or selfies.

Among younger drivers, the figures are even higher. Around half of those aged 17-24 make or receive calls, and more than a fifth send messages or post on social media while driving.

This, and other risky driving behaviours, pushes up the cost of insurance for a young driver. See below for how telematics insurance from Smartdriverclub can bring down the price of your premiums if you’re a careful driver.

The RAC report was based on self-reported surveys. Another study was carried out by Leeds University for the Department for Transport, and involved placing cameras in vehicles over the course of several months.

This small but in-depth study found that 69% of UK drivers had at least one interaction with a mobile phone during that time, including hands-free usage and glancing at visual information such as a map.

Further data comes from West Midlands Police, who caught 115 drivers using their mobile phones in one two-week operation in spring 2021. Seventy were making phone calls or texting, while one was even using a banking app.

Sergeant Jon Butler said: “Using a mobile while driving can have devastating consequences to both the driver and other road users.

“It may take only a few seconds to glance at your phone and open an app but that’s all it takes for a potentially fatal or life changing collision to unfold. Distractions can be deadly, don’t put lives at risk, put your phone away while driving.”

Around half of those aged 17-24 make or receive calls, and more than a fifth send messages or post on social media while driving.

A man holding a mobile phone up to his ear to talk whilst driving a car
How to break your mobile phone habit

So if you want to keep safe, stay legal, and drive down the cost of your young driver insurance policy, how can you resist the temptation to use your mobile while behind the wheel?

Part of the problem is that we’ve all become used to checking our mobile phones on a regular basis. If we hear a notification beep, it’s automatic to take a sneak peek.

If we’re lost, we might think that it’s excusable to check our sat nav – even if that means picking up our device to programme in our destination.

And if we’re stuck in slow traffic, it’s highly tempting to have a quick search for the football scores or ‘like’ a photo on social media!

However, all these habits mean you’re failing to pay attention, with potentially disastrous consequences.

So if you cannot use your device hands-free, then switch it off. At the very least, put it in ‘Do not disturb’ mode so you will be spared the sound of it beeping or ringing, and turn it face down.

Put it out of temptation: in the glove compartment or a bag on the back seat. That way, you can’t reach it while driving even if you want to.

Plan ahead for your journey, so you won’t feel the need to search the internet for places to stop en route.

If you’re travelling with a responsible passenger, entrust your phone to them. If they’re using your smartphone to act as navigator, make sure they can unlock it first.

And think of other ways to pass the time if you’re stuck in traffic, especially if you’re travelling alone. Many drivers welcome the chance to listen to audiobooks or music, so set up a playlist in advance of a long trip.

If your tech is more old-school, be aware that although changing a CD while driving isn’t explicitly banned, driving without due care and attention is – and you could end up causing an accident while searching for that perfect tune.

A final option is simply to enjoy the view – it’s hassle-free, safe, and perfectly legal!

Get a quote from Smartdriverclub Insurance today

At Smartdriverclub Insurance, we’re keen to encourage and reward safe driving habits, especially for younger or inexperienced drivers. That’s why we’ve developed a telematics system that monitors your driving to help you stay safe, legal, and cut the cost of cover.

By installing a Smartplug in your car, you can prove that you’re a safe driver. The device monitors how smoothly you’re cornering, braking and accelerating, and how often you drive at night.

There’s an accompanying app that allows you to learn what you’re doing well and how you could improve. The higher your driver score, the less your premiums could be the following year.

It’s a great way of driving down the cost of young driver insurance by making sure it’s tailored to you. So get a quote today to start your safe driving journey. You can do so online or give us a ring – just make sure you’re not driving at the time!