The current UK law makes it an offense to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving. This means that drivers cannot pick up a mobile phone in their hand and use it while driving. (The offense also applies to motorcycle riders who pick up and use a mobile phone; this consultation will use the word "drivers" to cover both drivers and motorcycle riders.) It is also an offense to use a hand-held mobile phone while supervising a learner driver. The law also covers "other hand-held interactive communication devices" such as tablets but until it becomes important to discuss specific types of devices in any detail, this document uses the term "mobile phone" to cover those similar devices.
The police rely heavily on a roadside presence to enforce the dedicated mobile phone offense. It is an offense that is, in many cases, easy to spot; in a line of slow-moving traffic, for example, the driver's head is down and the vehicle is slow to move along with the traffic flow. However, the job of the police is much more difficult than simply seeing a driver holding and tapping away at a phone; to enforce against the mobile phone offense, the police officer must establish that the driver was performing an interactive communication function. If they cannot and the driver was using a standalone function only, the police will be unable to enforce the mobile phone offense.
The police rely on photographic evidence from the members of the public to enforce a range of road traffic offenses. It is becoming increasingly common for drivers to have dashcams in their vehicles and for cyclists to have headcams on their helmets. Under Operation Snap, drivers and cyclists are encouraged to make use of their footage of fellow road users who are breaking the law by sending it to the police. In the case of using a hand-held mobile phone, the footage might show quite clearly a driver tapping or scrolling at the wheel, but the police would then face the problem of having to establish, from the driver, what type of use they were putting the phone too. Unless the use involved an interactive communication function, the police would be unable to secure a conviction using the mobile phone offense. The distinction between interactive communication functions and standalone functions creates a huge problem for the police and undermines the objective of improving road safety.
The Government's proposal to solve the problem described above is to broaden the existing offense of using a hand-held mobile phone while driving so that it covers drivers who are performing standalone functions as well as drivers who are performing interactive communication functions.
This means that all use of a hand-held mobile phone will be treated in the same way. If a driver is using a hand-held mobile phone to search for music already downloaded onto the phone, the physical manipulation, the cognitive demands, and the averted eyes are no different, in terms of risk, from a driver who is typing out and sending a text message. They both constitute an enormous risk and they should both be penalized in the same way. The proposal will still apply only in circumstances where a driver picks up the phone to use it while driving; any change we make to the law on the use of hand-held mobile phones arising from this consultation will not affect the use of mobile phones which are positioned in a cradle and used while remaining in the cradle (for example as a satnav).
This will make enforcement much easier. A police officer will be able to see a driver holding and tapping and scrolling a phone, and, based on that evidence, will be able to take enforcement action under the new proposed mobile phone offense rather than having to question the driver about whether the use involved interactive communication.
Activities falling within the offense now - "interactive communication" functions The driver holds the mobile phone or similar device in the hand to:
• Make a phone call
• Receive a phone call
• Send a text message
• Send an e-mail
• Access social media sites
• Access streaming services
Activities that will be captured under the revised offense. The driver holds the mobile phone or similar device in the hand to:
• Illuminate the screen
• Unlock the device
• Check the time
• Check notifications
• Reject a call
• 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
• Search for photos or other images stored in the phone
• Dictate voice messages into the phone
• Read a book downloaded on the phone
• Play a game downloaded on the phone