Using your mobile phone while driving has been a hot topic for quite a while now.

Recently, it’s been even more in the spotlight, thanks to major changes in the laws around drivers using mobile phones while behind the wheel.

The new rules have been partly driven by media coverage which has shown alarming pictures of people looking as though they were engrossed in their phones while trying to keep control of vehicles.

In 2015, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) reported: “A substantial body of research shows that using a hand-held or hands-free mobile phone while driving is a significant distraction, and substantially increases the risk of the driver crashing.”

It also flagged up the fact that drivers who use their phone while at the wheel “are four times more likely to crash, injuring or killing themselves and other people.”

It’s partly because of this weight of evidence, along with a huge increase in media attention that the Government has now updated the laws around mobile phones and driving.

How The Law Has Evolved

The first law governing use of a mobile phone while driving was introduced as long ago as 2003. This made it illegal for drivers to use a hand-held mobile phone, or similar device, while driving. Apart from an increase in the amount of the fixed penalty from £60 to £100 in 2013, the penalties hadn’t been updated until the recent law change.

The latest rules, which came into effect on 1 March 2017, mean that offenders are now subject to a £200 fine and six points. No ifs or buts!

The changes are squarely targeted at new drivers in particular, for those who rack up six points on their licence within two years of passing their test face an immediate ban. It’s only after these first two years that a driver may accrue 12 points before losing their licence.

The penalties can be slapped on anyone seen holding or touching their phone in any way while they’re at the wheel. The only time you can handle your phone legally while you’re in the driving seat of a car is while you’re parked up, in a safe and legal place, with the engine switched off and the keys out of the ignition.

You could even still be prosecuted for using a mobile phone illegally even if you don’t touch it at all. Police could decide that using the phone hands-free had been enough to distract you from being in proper control of your vehicle, resulting in a charge of driving without due care and attention, or careless driving. Their grounds for this could be as small as forcing another driver to brake momentarily - as your lack of care can be judged to have led to them having to take action to avoid a potential accident.

Being stopped at traffic lights or in a queue is no excuse either. “If your engine is running, your phone should be nowhere near your hands or eye line,” the RAC advises.

In the RAC Report on Motoring 2016, an annual survey of drivers’ attitudes, what the organisation called a “staggering” 47 per cent of drivers said they thought it was OK to check social media or text messages while stopped in traffic. It’s likely to be a chunk of these people who’ll find themselves falling foul of the revamped laws.

Coverage To Inform Drivers… Or Frighten Them?

Quite understandably, the tightening up of the law has led to a wave of newspaper coverage as they have tried to make drivers aware of the changes - or simply just scare them into staying on the right side of the law.

Among the more restrained coverage in the national press was an informative Daily Express piece which examined the whole topic of exactly what was and what wasn’t allowed under the new law.

And one issue which was also widely mentioned was how the changes would affect drivers who were using their smartphones as sat-nav devices, and reading instructions from their screens.

The RAC also clarified the situation surrounding such use, saying that, if you’re caught, “it is no excuse to say you’re simply following the mapping on your hand-held device. The mobile phone law specifically refers to this, stating it is illegal to use a hand-held mobile to follow a map.”

But it does reassure drivers that it’s still possible to use a smartphone navigation or mapping app legally, provided the phone is fixed to your windscreen or dashboard, so it’s in clear view while driving, without requiring you to hold it. This is what many private hire and taxi drivers do, it points out.

As for making, and taking, calls, your phone must be fully set up for hands-free use before setting off, so that you never need to handle your phone while driving. Bluetooth functionality in many cars allows phones to be wirelessly linked to your car speaker system, meaning no excuse for hands-on use.  

At Motor range, we’ve got a wide range of cars with this feature. Ford Focus models, for example have had Bluetooth as standard across the range since 2011 and the popular Mercedes-Benz A Class, the practical Range Rover Evoque and reliable Honda Civic also have this hands-free functionality.

The Campaigning Will Go On

While all the focus of the previous and new laws has been on catching and penalising drivers thought to be at risk of being distracted by using a phone while holding it, RoSPA reckons there are still risks attached to ALL phone use while at the wheel. It says: “Using a hands-free phone while driving does not significantly reduce the risks because the problems are caused mainly by the mental distraction and divided attention of taking part in a phone conversation at the same time as driving.”

RoSPA has also targeted employers to try to make them aware that they could be brought to court for ‘causing or permitting’ a driver to use a hand-held phone while driving. It also tried to warn drivers who spend long periods behind the wheel as a regular part of their work routine that this could lead to bosses being hauled before a court on a charge of not ensuring the safety of their workers while doing their jobs.

The RAC also points out that, in 2015, 22 people were killed and 99 seriously injured in accidents on UK roads where mobile phone use had been proved to be a contributing factor.

It also reveals that it’s found many police forces have backed away from issuing penalty points when they’ve caught someone using a mobile illegally while driving. Instead, they’ve been offering offenders places on safety awareness courses, which means that they’ve escaped having to pay a fine, and kept their driving licences intact. In fact, says the RAC, two-thirds of drivers caught under the law had chosen an awareness course instead of points and a fine.

It finishes by saying: “Using a hands-free phone while driving is just as dangerous as using a hand-held phone – there is little point in having both hands connected to the steering wheel, if the brain is not connected to the hands.”

This is why it says it will still be fighting for a total ban on mobile phone use by drivers. And it quotes evidence that, after an initial fall following the introduction of the 2003 rules, it wasn’t long before surveys carried out in London found the number of drivers breaking the law rising again.

As you’ve seen in this article, the long arm of the law is closing ever more tightly around any driver who needs to use their mobile while driving - and especially those who just reach for their phones instinctively, every time they make a sound. We hope that, having read it, you now know more about just what is and isn’t legal, and this advice will help keep you safe.

When you’re searching for used cars in Liverpool, it’s a good idea to find out whether any you’re interested in are equipped with Bluetooth connectivity, which lets you call legally from the car. Call us for advice, or contact us via Facebook if you’re unsure whether Bluetooth is fitted to any of our cars.