As we all know, the use of a phone whilst driving is prohibited in all but exceptional circumstances. To compensate for this, mindful of the fine line between safety and enforceability, the highway code permits the use of aids such as a dashboard mount or a Bluetooth headset to facilitate ‘safe’ use of your mobile whilst on the move. The last decade has seen swift and expansive development in relation to driving aids as well as the functionality of mobile devices. As a result, a grey area has developed around what you can and cannot use or do whilst at the wheel. So, what is the current position on the law; is it appropriate, and how, if at all, could it be changed for the better?
What does the law say?
Rule 149 of the Highway Code, the recognised legal authority for road usage, states that “you must not use a hand-held mobile phone, or similar device, when driving or supervising a learner driver”. If you wish to hold your phone to use it, you must park your vehicle. The only exception to this is to call 999 or 112 in a genuine emergency where it is unsafe or impractical to stop the car. This is unambiguous.
However, under the current wording of the legislation, it is possible to use a ‘hands-free’ aid – such as a dashboard mount, to facilitate using your phone whilst on the move. The reasoning behind this rule is clear. The law is in place to protect drivers from the dangers of using mobile devices at the wheel, but should not impose unnecessary or impractical burdens on the individual. By way of example, it would be impractical for you to be restricted from changing the song playing through the Bluetooth system or AUX port in your car (if you have one) using your phone on a mount because using the built-in controls to change your car stereo requires the same level of concentration. Further, it would be harder for police forces to enforce the complete detachment of a driver from their phone whilst driving because of the development of integrated technology in modern vehicles.
Is the law ambiguous?
This lenience, combined with the development in mobile capability, has brought the effectiveness of this legislation into question. Though restrictions exist surrounding when you use your phone, as outlined above, there is no specific clarification as to what you can use those devices for. This is probably because it would be very difficult to enforce, but it has led to some concerning reports of people checking emails, filming, or even catching up on their favourite Netflix series. In the media recently, we have seen many attempts to highlight this supposed short-fall in the law. Whilst this is not explicitly illegal, the police do have broad powers to prevent these kinds of activities at the wheel.
Though this discussion may seem as though the law is currently lenient to those using their phone whilst behind the wheel, the general requirements of drivers seem to prevent these allowances from being taken to the extreme. There are two ‘catch all’ offences that could be applied to this scenario: driving without due care and attention and careless driving. Under these offences, the police are able to pull over any driver that they perceive to be driving below the standard expected of a reasonably competent and careful driver. So, being distracted with your mobile or headphones may result in a fine of between 25% and 175% of the offender’s relevant weekly income and 3 to 9 penalty points. This high penalty and the broad powers of the police show that whist not explicitly illegal, the use of any device whilst driving may result in criminal liability.
Ultimately, you must not use a hand-held device whilst driving. If you have the facility to integrate your mobile to the driving interface with the use of driving aids then you are permitted to use them. This includes headphones of all types. However, this is only within the realms of reasonableness and the police have broad powers to pull you over for questioning if they feel that your level of control has fallen below the legal standard.
As a result of the media attention, developments in this area are likely to arise soon so sign up for our regular updates to stay on top of changing legislation in this area.