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Using a mobile phone while driving: what’s the law?

July 06, 2022 by

Want to know what the laws and penalties surrounding using a phone when driving are? Look no further

Driving is a complicated business, requiring constant observation, decision making and reacting. Understandably, anything that takes your attention away from the job in hand is a bad idea, and one of the key culprits for this is the mobile phone.

The laws surrounding mobile phone use in cars are pretty strict in the UK. In short, if you get caught using a phone behind the wheel you can expect a £200 fine and six penalty points on your licence; get caught twice within three years and you can expect to lose your licence entirely.

As ever, though, things aren’t quite as simple as they first appear, so here we explain what the laws that govern mobile phone use when driving say, plus how the penalties work, and what exemptions there are.

What are the mobile phone driving laws?

Laws depend on precise language, so it’s worth looking at what the letter of the law is regarding mobile phone use when driving.

It is illegal to “hold and use” a mobile phone when driving or riding a motorcycle. The same goes for a tablet computer, sat-nav, or “any device that can send or receive data” – although there is an exemption for CB radios.

There is no other interpretation to this law other than if you are holding a phone in your hand and operating it, you are in breach of the law.

The rules apply when you’re stopped at traffic lights, supervising a learner, and even if your phone is in ‘flight’ or offline mode. They also apply to any function your phone is capable of – so you’re not allowed to hold it to film or take pictures.

There are a couple of exemptions to this, but they’re very specific:

  • You can hold and use your phone when driving if you need to call 999 or 112 in an emergency if it is unsafe to park up and do so
  • You can use your phone when behind the wheel if you are safely parked.
  • You can use your phone to make contactless payments if the car is not moving (EG at a drive-thru restaurant window)
  • If your car has a system that lets you park it using your phone, you are allowed to do this too

Can I use a mobile phone if my car is stationary?

This depends on where, why and how you are stationary. As outlined above, if you’re waiting in traffic, you cannot use your mobile handheld – even if the queue is long and you have your handbrake on.

If you are quite clearly parked, you are allowed to hold and use your phone. Police officers tend to take a common sense approach to this, so if you’re parked on the side of the road with your handbrake, you’re probably okay.

Can I use a hands-free phone while driving?

The law is very clear that you are not allowed to “hold and use” a mobile phone while driving, but you are allowed to “use” it with the provision that “you do not hold them at any time during usage”.

This means if you have a smartphone cradle, mount or mat in your car, you are able to use your phone for calls, navigation or streaming audio. Any phone holder must not obscure your view of the road, though, while you are not allowed to pick the phone up to use it.

You are allowed to use your phone with a Bluetooth headset, and you are allowed to use voice commands to control it. Using Android Auto or Apple CarPlay to link your phone to your car’s infotainment system is also permitted.

The use of the word “hold” rather than “touch” does create some ambiguity though: the law specifies that you can use the phone “hands-free” as described above, but it also says to “hold” rather than to “touch” is prohibited – indicating you may be able to tap the screen to tell your navigation app to take an alternate route, for example.

However, as this is a grey area, we can only advise caution. Plus if you are deemed to be not in proper control of your vehicle as a result of using your phone, even if it’s totally hands free, you could still be stopped and prosecuted for this offence.

Can I use a mobile phone as a Sat Nav?

Assuming you abide by the details set out above and the phone is being used hands free, yes, it is legal to use a mobile phone as a sat nav when driving.

What’s the penalty for using a mobile phone while driving?

There is a standard penalty for being caught using a handheld mobile phone when driving: six penalty points and a £200 fine. This was increased from three points and a £100 fine in 2017.

You are only allowed to accrue 12 points within three years, so if you get caught on your phone twice within that period, you can expect to lose your licence. Also note that new drivers are only allowed six points within the first two years of driving, so a single mobile phone penalty in that period will see a new driver’s licence revoked.

The laws surrounding handheld use of a mobile phone behind the wheel was toughened up in March 2022 to close a loophole in previous legislation that did not foresee nor explicitly prohibit the use of mobile phone camera and other uses a phone can be put to.

Using a mobile phone while driving FAQs

How do the police catch you on your phone while driving?

With their nose for trouble and the long arm of the law. Police officers are adept at spotting people on their phone, having issued tickets after people who noticed they were being observed by dropped their phone to the floor of the car in the hopes of avoiding a penalty.

Police even look out for telltale signs of people on their phone: not noticing traffic lights have turned green, for example, or looking down frequently when driving. Some officers even have a name for this: “loving your lap” – as it’s not natural for people to gaze at this area regularly, especially when driving.

Dash-cam footage from other drivers can be used by police to issue penalties and prosecute drivers, while police officers have even made use of unmarked HGV lorries, allowing them to look down on distracted drivers from above.

Can cameras catch you on the phone while driving?

Cameras have been trialled to automatically detect people on their phones – one camera in the UK caught 15,000 people on their phones in just six months. So while mobile phone detecting cameras may not be commonplace now, it can only be a matter of time before they start appearing.

Can passengers use mobile phones in a car?

Yes, although they must not distract the driver when they do this – EG by showing them a funny video of a panda sneezing.

How do you report someone for using a mobile phone while driving?

You can report people using the non-emergency 101 phone number. If you have dash-cam footage of the offence police may be able to use this to issue a penalty, or you may have to be willing to attend court and give evidence.

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