Mobile phone laws for drivers to change making touching devices illegal

mobile phone laws
Loopholes in the law that let drivers use smartphones will be closed in 2021 (Picture iStock/Mthipsorn)

The government is planning to change mobile phone laws for drivers in the first few months of 2021. It wants to close loopholes in the law. These enable drivers to use their devices at the wheel in ways that might be as dangerous as making a call.

The gaps have come about as phone technology has become more sophisticated with smartphones. To plug the loopholes, the government wants to make it illegal for drivers to touch their phone.

What will the new mobile phone law say?

By Spring 2021 any use of a hand-held mobile phone while driving will be illegal. Drivers won’t be able to have any physical interaction with their phones while they’re at the wheel.

The Department for Transport (DfT) adds: “The new offence will expressly ban any use of the phone, even picking it up to see who is calling and then rejecting that call, or picking the phone up to check the time or the weather. These actions take drivers’ eyes and concentration away from the road.”

The new mobile phone laws will also specify that units with functions similar to smartphones such as tablets and gaming devices can’t be used by drivers.

mobile phone laws
Even touching a phone to switch it off or reject a call will be illegal under new laws (Picture iStock/Sorapop)

What will the punishment be?

The punishment for using or touching a handheld mobile phone will remain the same. This is six penalty points and a £200 fine.

How does that change?

The law around hand-held mobile phones and driving originally came about in 2003. This was before smartphones when mobiles were only used for making calls or sending texts. In law this is called ‘interactive communication’.

With smartphones, drivers can legally use a handheld phone to compose emails, look at or take photographs, or pick music to stream to their car. They can even play games downloaded to their phone while driving. This is known as ‘standalone communication’.

The problem for police

The DfT sees the police as a real deterrent in the battle against drivers using hand-held mobile phones. But if a police officer sees a driver with their head bowed, fiddling with their phone, they need to establish if that driver is using their phone for interactive communication.

There may be doubt, or the driver might show they were scrolling through music, for example. In that case, the police wouldn’t get a conviction under the offence of using a mobile phone.

The police would be able to secure a conviction under the lesser offence of ‘not in proper control’ of the car. The driver would probably only receive three penalty points for that.

Why is the change coming about?

The government argues that the many functions smartphones offer are just as dangerous as those they’ve outlawed.

It claims: “If a driver is using a hand-held mobile phone to search for music already downloaded onto the phone, the physical manipulation, the cognitive demands and the averted eyes are no different, in terms of risk, from a driver who is typing out and sending a text message.”

What will drivers be able to do with phones?

Drivers can use their phones by tethering to their car using Bluetooth or plugging into the car’s USB socket. But they must control their phone’s functions without touching it. That means using voice control, steering wheel buttons or via the dashboard screen in their car.

mobile phone laws
Touching a phone in a cradle will, as now, be allowed (Picture iStock/MPETTET)

Will drivers be able to use phones in their cradle?

As now, if they mount phones safely in a cradle, drivers will be able to touch them. This lets them program sat navs, choose songs etc… But the phone must stay mounted in the cradle.

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