On 25 March 2022, the law on people using their mobile phones while driving in Great Britain will become stricter.

This Insight looks at the reasons for the changes, and the impact they will have on motorists.

What’s the current law on using a phone while driving?

Since 2003, it’s been an offence to use a hand-held mobile phone or similar hand-held device while driving in Great Britain.

The offence (under Regulation 110 of the Road Vehicles (Construction & Use) Regulations 1986) is specified as using a hand-held device for ‘interactive communication’: principally phone-calls and messages or accessing the internet. Using the device does not need to lead to an accident for the offence to be committed. The offence carries a minimum penalty of a £200 fine and six penalty points. This means an offender would lose their licence after two offences or, for new drivers who have held a licence for less than two years, a single offence would lead to their licence being revoked. There is also a similar offence in Northern Ireland.

Why is the Government changing the law?

The law is being updated to keep up with technology.

Since 2003, mobile devices have become capable of performing many more tasks beyond ‘interactive communication’. They are used to play music and games, take photos or videos, or scroll through articles. The Government said, the “array of functions that mobile phones can now perform has outgrown the wording of the offence and its parameters”.

What led to the change?

The perceived need for a law change has been highlighted by recent court cases, particularly that of DPP Vs Barreto in 2019. In that case, a driver who was filming a nearby road accident while at the wheel was found not guilty because they were not using a hand-held mobile phone for ‘interactive communication’. The judge said they were therefore out of the scope of this offence.

Following this, the Government consulted on changes to the law. According to the consultation, “the Government considers that all use of a hand-held mobile phone while driving is reckless and dangerous, and not just when being used for the purposes of a call or other interactive communication.”

Department for Transport statistics illustrate the danger. In 2020, 17 people were killed, 114 people were seriously injured, and 385 were slightly injured in road traffic accidents in Great Britain where the driver was using a mobile phone.

Just over 80% of the 423 respondents to the consultation agreed with the Government’s proposal to expand the offence to cover uses beyond ‘interactive communication’.

On 1 February 2022, the Government laid a Statutory Instrument (SI), under the ‘made negative’ procedure, titled The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2022 which will enact the proposed changes.

What will the new law mean?

The new law will amend the 1986 Regulations and will mean the offence is triggered whenever a driver holds and uses a device, regardless of why they are holding it.

The SI’s explanatory notes state the offence “will cover any device which is capable of interactive communication even if that functionality is not enabled at the time.” (PDF) This would include a device being in flight mode.

In the text of the SI, the meaning of ‘using’ a phone will be expanded to cover the following:
  • illuminating the screen
  • checking the time
  • checking notifications
  • unlocking the device
  • making, receiving, or rejecting a telephone or internet based call
  • sending, receiving or uploading oral or written content
  • sending, receiving or uploading a photo or video
  • utilising camera, video, or sound recording
  • drafting any text
  • accessing any stored data such as documents, books, audio files, photos, videos, films, playlists, notes or messages
  • accessing an app
  • accessing the internet

Will there be exemptions?

As well as an existing exemption which allows a driver to use a phone in emergencies, the new law creates one new exemption. According to the SI’s explanatory notes, drivers will be permitted to hold and use a device while driving to make a contactless payment at a payment terminal for goods or services. The vehicle would have to be stationary, and the item being paid for must be provided at the same time or after the contactless payment is made. Such a transaction might include paying for a car park or drive-through coffee using a phone.

The explanatory notes also say that using a mobile phone for navigation will continue to be legal, as long as it is kept in a cradle and not in the driver’s hand. They also say the Government will update both the Gov.uk guidance on Using a phone or a sat nav when driving and the Highway Code, to reduce misunderstandings about the new law, particularly on the difference between hand-held and hands-free use.

What reaction has there been to the new law?

Motorist groups such as the RAC have ‘strongly welcomed’ the law change but say it must be enforced properly to really make roads safer. Researchers at the Transport Research Laboratory said the law changes are sensible, but the ongoing “focus on ‘hand-held’ devices misses the point”, and a wider appreciation of how even ‘hands-free’ technology can distract drivers is needed.

Further information

The law will come into force on 25 March 2022, and will have effect in England, Scotland and Wales.

For background information, see the Library briefing on Road traffic offences and licensing FAQs.


About the author: Roger Tyers is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in transport policy.

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

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