‘Outdated’ mobile phone legislation must be reviewed and extended to improve road safety

Calls have been made for the Government to update the law on the use of a mobile phone while driving – including banning the use of hands-free phones.

Safety organisations say that mobile phone use has evolved beyond the legislation that was introduced in 2003, which states that an offence is committed if a driver uses a hand-held mobile phone for ‘interactive communication’ behind the wheel.

Furthermore, a new report from the House of Commons Transport Committee says the Government should consider tougher restrictions on driving while using a mobile phone and stricter enforcement of the law to prevent the ‘entirely avoidable’ tragedy of deaths and serious injuries from related crashes on the roads

The calls come in the wake of a High Court ruling overturning the conviction of a builder for driving while using a mobile phone to record footage of a road crash in west London in August last year. Judges ruled that using a function on a mobile phone which did not involve ‘interactive telecommunication’, was not a mobile phone offence.

Claiming that the current law was “not fit for purpose” and that ‘interactive communication’ was an “outdated concept”, road safety and breakdown organisation GEM Motoring Assist said: “The Government must immediately update wording of mobile phone legislation.”

MPs on the Committee agreed as they have called on the Government to overhaul current laws on using hand-held mobile devices while driving, to cover use irrespective of whether it involves sending or receiving data.

Additionally, as evidence showed that using a hands-free device created the same risks of crashing, the Committee also recommended that the Government explored options for extending the ban on hand-held devices to hands-free phones. It wants a public consultation on the extension published by the end of the year.

MPs on the Transport Committee in a report, ‘Road Safety: Driving While Using a Mobile Phone’, said there was clear evidence that “using a mobile phone while driving is dangerous, with potentially catastrophic consequences”.

In 2017, there were 773 casualties, including 43 deaths and 135 serious injuries, in collisions where a driver using a mobile phone was a contributory factor. The number of people killed or seriously injured has risen steadily since 2011, according to the Department for Transport.  

The High Court overturned the conviction of 51-year-old builder Ramsey Baretto, who had been using his phone to film the scene of a collision as he drove by. Lady Justice Thirlwall said: “The legislation does not prohibit all use of a mobile phone while driving. It prohibits driving while using a mobile phone or other device for calls and other interactive communications – and holding it at some stage during that process.”

She continued that the ruling was not “the green light for people to make films as they drive” and acknowledged that, despite the weakness in the law, drivers who did choose to use a mobile phone behind the wheel could still be prosecuted for more serious offences such as careless or dangerous driving.

Lady Justice Thirlwall concluded: “Whether a review of the regulations is necessary to take account of the myriad current and potentially dangerous uses of a mobile phone or other device while driving is a matter for Parliament, not the courts.”

The judgement could now pave the way for other defendants who felt misrepresented to challenge their similar convictions in a bid to have them quashed.

Mr Baretto’s legal firm Patterson Law, a specialist firm of UK motoring lawyers, said in a statement: “We are absolutely delighted with the outcome of this case. We have been arguing for many years that the legislation in relation to the offence of using a handheld mobile phone whilst driving a motor vehicle has failed to keep pace with the evolution of smart phones. The increasing multi-functionality of smart phones was, in fact, making a mockery of the law.”

Reflecting on the Hugh Court ruling, Patterson Law said: “This is not a loophole argument/defence. This is simply the correct application and understanding of the law as it currently stands. The issue was that the law as it stood created anomalies and confusion. We now have the clarity in this judicial precedent to match what we had been correctly advocating on behalf of our clients for many many years.”

GEM road safety officer Neil Worth said: “The Government’s failure to bring legislation up to date is putting lives at risk. We now have an absurd situation where the wording of the law is insufficient and cumbersome, only stating ‘interactive communication’ as an illegal use of a mobile phone when driving, when we know it is clearly unsafe to use a mobile phone for any purpose when driving.”

Specific laws applying to the use of a hand-held mobile phone while driving were introduced in December 2003. The penalties have gradually increased over the years and are now a standard fine of £200 and six penalty points, with a maximum of up to £1,000 and six points. The fine can rise to £2,500 if driving a bus, coach or HGV. Under current UK case law, ‘driving’ includes being stationary if a vehicle’s engine is running, including in traffic queues and at traffic lights. It is not a specific offence to use a hands-free mobile phone while driving.

Mr Worth said: “Although penalties have increased, the specific wording of the law governing mobile phones and driving has not changed for 16 years. We are writing to the Government urging it to update the legislation at the earliest opportunity. This will ensure it is fit for purpose, and will avoid further compromise to road safety.”

Mr Baretto was convicted in July last year after a magistrates’ court trial. He then appealed to the crown court and had the conviction overturned. The Director of Public Prosecutions subsequently launched a legal challenge in the High Court claiming that the legislation prohibited all hand-held mobile phone use while driving.

Transport Committee chairman Lilian Greenwood MP, said: “Despite the real risk of catastrophic consequences for themselves, their passengers and other road users, far too many drivers continue to break the law by using hand-held mobile phones. 

“If mobile phone use while driving is to become as socially unacceptable as drink-driving much more effort needs to go into educating drivers about the risks and consequences of using a phone behind the wheel. Offenders also need to know there is a credible risk of being caught, and that there are serious consequences for being caught.

“There is also a misleading impression that hands-free use is safe. The reality is that any use of a phone distracts from a driver’s ability to pay full attention and the Government should consider extending the ban to reflect this.

“Each death and serious injury which results from a driver using a mobile phone is a tragedy that is entirely avoidable. We need tougher restrictions, better enforcement and more education to make our roads safer for all.”

GEM Motoring Assist’s tips on mobile phones and driving

  • Drivers are allowed to use a mobile phone when safely parked, with the engine off and the handbrake on
  • Do not pick up a phone in any other driving situation, including when stationary at traffic lights or queueing in traffic
  • The only exception to the above is if it is an emergency and it would be unsafe or impractical to stop, in which case call 999
  • Do not assume that using a hands-free kit means the risk has been dealt with. Drivers are still allowing themselves to be distracted from the task of safe driving, and could still be prosecuted for not being in control of a vehicle (an offence that carries a £100 fine and three penalty points)
  • Take a few minutes before a journey to make important calls or to check voice messages and emails. Work together with friends, family, colleagues and work contacts to remove the expectation of availability at all times
  • Plan journeys to build in breaks from driving, where calls, texts or emails can be sent or checked or to interact with social media in a safe environment.

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