Texting or using your phone at the wheel has been illegal in one form or another since 2003. If you’re caught, you’ll probably get a CU80 offence code on your driving licence. But the UK government is now considering proposals for much stricter mobile phone driving laws.
A public consultation on the issue, which launched in October 2020, has now closed. Leading the drive for more enforceable legislation is roads minister Baroness Vere of Norbiton for the Department for Transport. If successful, the mobile phone laws could be updated later in 2021.
Why the UK needs tighter legislation
The trouble arises from the phrasing of the current law, in particular the phrase “interactive communication”. At the moment, the CU80 offence around hand-held mobile phones refers to interactive communication, i.e. with another person. That covers making calls, texting or emailing another person from a hand-held phone while driving.
This leaves grey areas and loopholes, though, which drivers have been quick to exploit.
For example, in court, some drivers have been able to challenge their conviction on the basis that they were actually scrolling through music playlists, browsing the internet, taking photos or video footage, or even playing games on their hand-held device! Strictly speaking, current legislation means these activities aren’t covered by the offence.
But there’s little doubt that using these standalone functions on a mobile phone (or any other electronic device) while driving are just as distracting and dangerous as using it for interactive communication with another person.
Police can use a weaker charge of “not in proper control of the vehicle” to cover the use of non-interactive functions on a phone. The problem is, this carries a lesser penalty, which undermines the tough stance the government wants to take on mobile phone use while driving.
Enforcement issues of the existing mobile phone driving laws
To successfully enforce the current law, police need to prove that a driver was using their phone for interactive purposes covered by the offence, rather than standalone functions that aren’t. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to prove.
They might easily have evidence to show a driver with their phone in their hand, head tipped towards it and fingers tapping. It’s quite another thing, however, to prove that they were sending a text message rather than, for example, searching for music.
What do the stricter phone laws propose?
The stricter legislation would remove any distinction between the driver who uses a hand-held phone to text a friend, and the driver who scrolls through music, browses the internet etc. It’s hard to argue with this: both types of interaction have the same cognitive demands, both divert a driver’s eyes from the road and constitute a huge risk.
The existing CU80 offence will be broadened to penalise offenders equally for any use of a hand-held mobile phone, no matter what the activity. Hands-free driving is the only way to avoid a penalty.
Phone activities that will not be allowed
The chart below outlines phone activities that already fall within the scope of the offence, and those that would be included under the expanded legislation. The list on the right is not exhaustive and could include other activities.
|Activities falling within the offence now||Activities that will become illegal under the revised offence|
|Make a phone call||Illuminate the screen|
|Receive a phone call||Unlock the device|
|Send a text message||Check the time|
|Send an e-mail||Check notifications|
|Access social media sites||Reject a call|
|Access streaming services||Compose text messages or e-mails to save in drafts|
|Take photos or videos|
|Use the phone’s camera as a mirror|
|Search for music stored on the phone|
|Dictate voice messages into the phone|
|Read a book downloaded on the phone|
|Play a game downloaded on the phone|
The revised offence would also cover any other hand-held device such as tablets, gaming equipment, notepads etc. Also of note, no distinction will be made between a device that’s “offline” or in flight mode, or one that’s connected to the internet. This makes the offence very simple for drivers to understand, and helps police officers enforce it.
The basic principle is – don’t pick up, hold or use your phone or any other electronic device for any reason at all while you’re driving.
Can you touch your phone if it’s in a cradle?
The amended legislation would not affect the permitted “hands-free” use of a mobile phone while in a dash-mounted cradle. However, if the driver appeared to be distracted, even this could be penalised under the lesser offence of not having proper control of your vehicle.
Can you use your phone as a sat nav while driving?
You’re permitted to use your phone as a sat nav, but you must set up your route before you drive away, and keep the phone in its cradle to maintain hands-free driving.
Can you use a mobile phone in the car if you’re parked, with the engine off?
Yes, but you must be parked safely and legally. The engine must be off, hand-brake on, all lights off. The Highway code has specific guidance on its rules for safe parking.
Is it illegal to use a two-way radio while driving?
Two-way radios are exempt from the hand-held mobile phone rules, but as with any other device in the car, if the police believe you’re unduly distracted while using your two-way radio, you can still be convicted of not being in proper control of your vehicle.
What options are there for hands-free access to your phone?
- a Bluetooth headset
- voice command
- a dashboard holder or mat
- a windscreen mount (it must not obstruct your view)
- a built-in sat nav
What are the penalties for using a hand-held mobile phone while driving?
Under the current penalties you can get 6 penalty points and a £200 fine for using a hand-held phone when driving. If you passed your driving test in the last 2 years, you’ll also lose your licence under the totting-up rules.
If you don’t have a full view of the road and traffic ahead, or proper control of the vehicle, you can be given 3 penalty points.
In serious cases you might also be taken to court, where you can be banned from driving and get a maximum fine of £1,000 (£2,500 if you’re driving a lorry or bus).
Is car insurance more expensive with a CU80 conviction?
Some insurers may increase your premium if you have a CU80 conviction, but it’s worth looking around for more affordable options. Complete Cover Group have specialist insurance policies to cover drivers with CU80 convictions.
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