Using your mobile phone while driving - The law explained


The dangers of using your mobile phone while at the wheel have hit the headlines recently.

David Beckham has been in court this week for using his mobile phone while driving his Bentley around London’s West End, and police forces in the Thames Valley and Hampshire have announced plans to use new detectors to catch drivers who don’t pull over to make that call.

Sam Phillips, a trainee solicitor at DAS Law, gives us the low-down and explains the letter of the law…

Mobile phones and driving offences

Since 2003, it has been a specific offence to operate a hand-held mobile phone (including a smartphone) whilst driving. The penalty for doing so has increased to six points on your licence and a minimum fine of £200. If your case goes to court, you may face disqualification from driving and a fine of up to £1,000. Drivers of buses or goods vehicles can be fined up to £2,500.

If you incur six points on your licence within two years of passing your driving test, you will automatically lose your license and will have to re-take your theory and practical test.

The regulations apply equally to drivers of all types of motor vehicle – cars, motorcycles, goods vehicles, buses, coaches and taxis.

The same rules also apply to anyone who is supervising a learner driver. As a supervisor in this situation, it is your responsibility to make sure that the learner is driving safely and being considerate to other road users, and this requires your undivided attention.

This may all seem quite clear, but the exact definition of “use” of a mobile phone and of “driving” your car can be broader than you might think.

Driving a car

Even if your car is off the road and is not moving, you may be considered to be driving if your engine is on. Therefore, if you stop your car to use your phone, it would be wise to turn your engine off first.

Likewise, the police will still consider you to be driving if you are stuck in a traffic jam or waiting at traffic lights, so in this situation you should not alleviate your boredom by using your phone unless you are using a hands-free set.

Bear in mind that each case is judged on its own merits, so there is no fixed definition. The best thing you can do is be aware of these guidelines before picking up your phone.

Using a mobile phone

“Use” of a phone requires some form of interaction with the device, such as dialling a number, looking at the phone to see who is calling, or speaking to or texting someone. Using your phone to browse the internet will also fall within the definition of ‘use’.

The burden of proof is on the prosecution, meaning that they will need to prove that you were holding the device at some point whilst using it.

If you can prove that you did not make/send or receive any calls or texts at the time of the alleged offence and that there was no interaction with anything such as the internet or an app, you may be able to convince the court that no offence was committed. However, if a police officer is a witness to you holding the phone, you may struggle to provide a valid defence.

The only situation in which you can use your phone while driving is if you need to dial 999 or 112. This is only allowed if there is a genuine emergency and you are not able to stop and park your car at that moment.

Using a mobile phone while cycling

Talking on a mobile phone while you are riding a bicycle is not illegal - however, you can still be charged with careless or dangerous cycling if it causes you to become distracted or ride less safely.

Hands-free phones

Hands-free phones are not prohibited. Hands-free phones can still be a distraction, however, and you can still be prosecuted under Regulation 104 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 if the police deem you to not be in proper control of your vehicle due to the use of such a device; for example, if you are looking at or interacting with your phone in some way instead of watching the road.

Careless and dangerous driving

Bear in mind that you don’t need to crash or be caught committing dangerous driving or careless driving to be charged – if a police officer sees you, or you are caught on camera, you can be charged. However, you can also be charged with careless or dangerous driving if this happens while you are using your mobile phone.

You should bear this in mind if you are using a hands-free set – even though these are not illegal on their own, they could be used as evidence if you are charged with careless or dangerous driving.

Employer requirements

If your employer requires you to make or receive calls on your hand-held phone while you are driving, or if a use of a phone installed in your car by your employer causes you to drive dangerously, they can be also be held liable if you are charged. If a fatal accident occurs as a result, they could even be charged under the Corporate Manslaughter Act.

Disclaimer: This information is for general guidance regarding rights and responsibilities and is not formal legal advice as no lawyer-client relationship has been created.