Tightening the Law – Mobile Phones and Driving

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A long-standing frustration with the law around the use of mobile phones whilst driving has been that it only applies where the device is being used to perform an interactive communication function – i.e., holding a phone and communicating by talking, texting, sending an email etc. – but not in other cases. This is changing.

The case of R Barreto in 2019 clarified that the law as it stands does not apply to the use of a handheld device being used for another function – for example, taking a video or photograph – because that in itself is not communication. If a video were being streamed, that would be covered. But simply recording something to the handset would not. Similarly, if communication cannot be proved, that is a loophole – if you’re writing an email but don’t send it, does that count as interactive communication at that point?

Mobile phone use whilst driving has been illegal in the UK since 2003 but technology since that time has developed significantly. Seventeen years ago, phone functionality was far more limited. Feature phones and early smartphones existed with fairly low quality cameras and slow internet connectivity, but devices as we know them today didn’t appear until 2007 with the iPhone and 2008 for Android phones, and it still took time for them to become the refined, high speed, always connected multi-purpose devices that are so central to everyday life now. The law basically hasn’t kept up.

Thankfully, this loophole is being closed. The BBC and The Guardian has reported that subject to consultation, from next year (2021) the law will be tightened to say that holding and using a phone whilst driving will be illegal (with certain exceptions such as making mobile payments at a drive-through takeaway).

This is very good news for road safety. Once the law has changed, in theory it should no longer be necessary to gather evidence of exactly what a phone is being used for in order to secure a prosecution. Simply having evidence of a hand-held phone being used in some fashion should be enough.

Some have argued that hands-free use of a mobile whilst driving should also be covered by the revised law, but it doesn’t go that far. I would agree that hands-free use of communications functions (phone/video calls, dictated texting etc.) should be covered though I would suspect enforcement under this law would be more difficult. However, more general laws around being in control of the vehicle and driving with due care and attention can already be used where someone’s driving is evidently impaired regardless of the cause.

Mobile phone use whilst driving is considered one of the #Fatal4 by road traffic police. It attracts a fine of £200, six penalty points, and potential cost of insurance implications, and can be evidenced by members of the public through dashcams, helmet cameras etc.

Article image: Flickr/Lord Jim – CC BY 2.0 – https://flic.kr/p/8iH4En

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