Mobile Phones – use while driving

What is the law?

As from 1 December 2003 it has been a specific offence to use a hand-held mobile phone or similar device when driving. There is a £60 fixed penalty with three penalty points for the offence rising to £1,000 on conviction in court. This figure inflates to £2,500 for drivers of goods vehicles, buses or coaches. For the most serious cases, motorists who use mobile phones at the wheel could face up to two years in jail.

The legal basis for the ban is the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) (Amendment) (No.4) Regulations 2003 (SI 2695).

The regulations make exceptions for 999 and other emergency service calls, and for calls made in response to a "genuine emergency" or where it is "impractical" to stop driving.

However, it is still an offence to make calls during on-the-road stops, for example, at traffic lights or in traffic jams.


Prior to the introduction of the regulations, there were no specific controls governing the use of mobile phones while driving, although drivers could be prosecuted for driving without due care and attention.

It was widely felt that mobile phone use when driving increased the risk of accidents, and this was confirmed by the Stewart Report of 2000, which warned that the practice could have a detrimental effect on driving standards, and was reconfirmed by a 2003 assessment carried out by the Department for Transport's road safety division.

In 2003, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents claimed to have evidence that at least 20 road deaths since 1998 had involved mobile phone use, but the Society said that there were likely to have been many more, as the cause of accidents is not recorded.

Research by the Transport Research Laboratory in 2002 warned that drivers on mobiles had even worse reaction and stopping times than those under the influence of alcohol.

Pressure to act on the issue was spurred by the Government's Road Safety Strategy, 'Tomorrow's Roads – Safer for Everyone' which set a target for reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries on British roads by 40 per cent by 2010.

To make mobile phone calls legally while driving, a motorist must use a hands-free kit and have the handset held in a 'cradle'. The regulations only apply to passengers where the passenger is a driving instructor, instructing a learner. Cyclists are not affected by the regulations. The use of two-way radios is exempt, but the Government maintains that using them, and mobiles with hands-free sets, is still distracting and may leave a driver liable for prosecution for driving without due care and attention.

Since February 2007, drivers caught using a mobile phone while driving have been fined £60 and given three penalty points; new guidance issued in December of that year stated that those involved in the most serious accidents could be charged with dangerous driving and face a maximum jail sentence of two years.


Many road safety campaigners feel that the regulations do not go far enough because they are ambiguous about what a 'device' might be and do not ban calls with hands-free kits. Their opponents counter that mobile phones are no more distracting than many other driver activities that have no specific provisions made for them, such as talking to a passenger.

Enforcement of the ban has been alleged to be patchy. In the first week of the ban, Scottish police forces issued just 20 tickets, whilst English forces announced a two-month amnesty to allow drivers to "get used to" the measures. The ban is intrinsically difficult to enforce, as the offender must be caught in the act.

Furthermore, a study published in the US journal 'Injury Prevention' found that 16 months after the introduction of New York state's ban, mobile use while driving had returned to just slightly below levels seen before the ban. The researchers warned that sustained publicity was necessary to prevent the public from slipping back into old habits.

Rapid advances in technology in the form of smartphones have added a new dimension to the risks of using a mobile while driving. The 'RAC Report on Motoring 2011'  reported that a significant number of drivers in the 17-24 age group and a slightly lower number in the 25-44 age group admitted to accessing email, Facebook or other social networking sites and other apps. while behind the wheel.

Further research published in March 2012, carried out by the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the Transport Research Laboratory,  which assessed the effects on young drivers using smartphones to access Facebook, found that in every test their driving performance was adversely affected. The researchers concluded that when compared with previous studies, this study showed that using smartphones for social networking when driving was more dangerous than drink -driving or being high on cannabis.

The IAM called for government action to highlight the dangers of using smartphones behind the wheel and suggested that phone manufacturers and social network providers also had a key role to play in spreading the message.


Research to examine the effects on young drivers using smartphones to access Facebook found that:
When sending and receiving Facebook messages –
reaction times slowed by around 38% and participants often missed key events;
participants were unable to maintain a central lane position resulting in an increased number of unintentional lane departures;
participants were unable to respond as quickly to the car in front gradually changing speed.

When comparing these new results to previous studies the level of impairment on driving is greater than the effects of drinking, cannabis and texting:-
Using a smartphone for social networking slows reaction times by 37.6 per cent.
Texting slows reaction times by 37.4 per cent.
Hands-free mobile phone conversation slows reaction times by 26.5 per cent.
Cannabis slows reaction times by 21 per cent.
Alcohol (above UK driving limit but below 100mg per 100ml of blood) slows reaction time by between six and 15 per cent.
Alcohol at the legal limit slows reaction times by 12.5 per cent.

Source: IAM – March 2012

It is illegal to use a hand held mobile phone whilst driving…but motorists appear to be constantly flouting this law.
21% have held a mobile phone while either driving or stationery at lights. 17-44 year olds are the worst offenders with 28% admitting it against just 9% of motorist aged 70 and over.
23% have texted while either driving or stationery at lights. By age, 39% of 25-44 year olds and 38% of 17-24 year olds admitted to this offence against only 2% of 60-69 years, and 28% of urban against 21% of rural drivers also admitted to this.
11% of all motorists have accessed social media or their emails whilst driving, rising to 19% for the 17-24 year old age group. 19% of urban drivers also admitted to this against 9% of rural drivers.
11% of all motorists also accessed other websites whilst driving – 18% of 17-24 year olds. 20% of urban drivers also admitted to this against 7% of rural drivers.

Too many motorists do not treat using hand held mobiles as an offence, which suggests that current penalties are not working. However:
42% would like to see a ban for people convicted of mobile phone related offences.
53% support fines and three or six points on a licence.
Only 4% support no penalty at all.

Source: RAC Report on Motoring 2012

“This research shows how incredibly dangerous using smartphones while driving is, yet unbelievably it is a relatively common practice….. It’s antisocial networking and it’s more dangerous than drink -driving and it must become just as socially unacceptable."

IAM chief executive Simon Best – March 2012

"Again, awareness campaigns on the dangers of being distracted by a mobile phone and more visible police enforcement are needed. A sizeable minority also want more severe penalties."

RAC – 2012