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Using a mobile phone while driving

Talking on a mobile phone whilst driving a motor vehicle is undoubtedly distracting. Since 2003 it has also been illegal; however, the legal position is not entirely straightforward, so it is probably helpful to examine it in a little more detail.

What are the risks?

Governmant-sponsored research indicates that motorists are four times more likely to crash if they are using a mobile phone, and that reaction times for drivers using a phone are around 50 per cent slower than in normal driving. Road safety experts are concerned by the fact that it seems to be talking on the phone, rather than using its controls, which is the main distraction, so a hands-free phone is not necessarly safer. Apparently, when talking to someone who is not in the car, drivers find it harder to pause or stop talking in order to deal with a traffic problem, which is why talking to passengers is not regarded as equally risky.

The legal ban on using hand-held phones

The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2003 changed the law to make using a hand-held telephone illegal whilst driving. In February 2007, the offence was included in the Road Traffic Act list of offences which also carry a three-point licence endorsement.

What does 'use' mean?

The meaning of the term 'use' has been subject to legal wrangling. Talking on the phone is certainly using it, and so is dialling a number or reading something off the screen: just holding it is possibly not the same thing, as lawyers have argued in court.

What about 'driving'?

Arguably, the vehicle does not have to be moving for the offence to be committed. It is certainly not acceptable to make a call whilst stationary at traffic lights, but a completely solid traffic jam would probably be seen as a different case by the police and courts. If a driver pulls over to speak on the phone he is still technically in charge of the vehicle, so the best advice is to switch the engine off.

Hands-free devices

Although hands-free phones are not prohibited, they can still be seen by police and courts as a distraction; so, in the event of an accident, or if the driver is observed not to be in proper control of the vehicle, drivers using them can be prosecuted for careless or dangerous driving, or charged under Regulation 104 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986.

Employers of drivers

To 'cause or permit' someone to drive whilst using a phone, or not having proper control of the vehicle, is also an offence, and there have been cases where employers have been prosecuted if they expected their staff to make or receive calls. Issuing hands-free kits is not necessarily seen as a defence in these circumstances, so employers need to be clear in their instructions to staff.

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