New mobile phone driving laws explained

Since the 25th March 2022, the laws around using your mobile phone while driving in Britain have changed.

The change is a broadening of the current law, to account for the constant evolution of technology. When the legislation was written in 2003, it specified the use of hand-held devices for 'interactive communication', but since then, our phones and other devices have evolved far beyond being used solely for communication, and the changes are aiming to fill this gap.

What's the current law?

Since 2003, there has been a specific offence to cover the use of a hand-held mobile phone or similar device while driving (under Regulation 110 of the Road Vehicles (Construction & Use) Regulations 1986). Under current law, it's an offence to use a hand-held mobile phone or similar device while you're driving in Great Britain, even if your usage doesn't result in an accident.

However, the definition of 'using' these devices is very narrow; the wording only specifies 'interactive communication', like phone calls, texts, and accessing the internet. In 2003, of course, this was about all you could use a mobile phone for, but with the advancements of modern technology, this wording simply doesn't sufficiently cover the capabilities of modern devices.

This has led to a loophole in the current law, in that a driver could be using their phone for a 'standalone' function such as taking pictures or scrolling through a playlist and not trigger an offence, since it falls outside the parameters of interactive communication listed in the legislation. The government believes that any and all use of a mobile phone or similar device while driving creates equal risk, and have changed the law to reflect this.

The offence carries a minimum penalty of six points on your license and a £200 fine, meaning that an offender would only need to commit the offence twice before losing their license. Even worse, if you've held your license for less than two years, a single offence would cost you your license.

What's changed?

The main motivation for altering the legislation is to encompass more of the capabilities of modern technology, so under the new legislation, the definition of 'using' a phone or similar device has been expanded to include 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

This broadening of the definition helps to account for the vast leaps in technology since 2003, as modern phones and other hand-held devices are capable of much more complex - and distracting - tasks than basic communication. Specifying this wider array of uses helps to both better define what exactly is illegal and encompass the progressions of modern technology into the law, to help keep everyone safer on the road.

In order to further clarify the rules, the amended regulation also specifies that it will cover any device capable of interactive communication, ‘even if that functionality is not enabled at the time.' This means that even if your device's mobile data is turned off or the device is in flight mode, the offence will still be triggered.

Are there any exceptions?

As with the previous version of the law, there will be some exceptions. An exception that remains unchanged is the ability to use a mobile or similar device in an emergency. This is defined by the legislation as 'where a person makes a call to the emergency services on 999 or 112 in response to a genuine emergency where it is unsafe or impracticable to cease driving while the call is being made.'

There is also a new exception; the new regulations specify that a hand-held mobile or similar device can be used in a car to make a contactless payment at a payment terminal. The vehicle must be stationary, and the item or service you're paying for must be provided at the time of payment, or after – think paying for a drive-through meal or a car park with your phone. Again, the change is intended to bring the law up to date with modern technology such as contactless payments.

The law also specifies that using a mobile phone for navigation will remain legal only so long as the device sits in a holder, and not in your hand or on the passenger seat.

You can read both the old law and the new amendment on the UK legislation website, as well as the explanatory notes for the change provided by the government to unpack the legal jargon.