History provides many examples of moments when the law found itself drastically outpaced by technological advancement, changing human behaviour or a combination of both. 

Often these moments have had some connection with the automobile industry. The invention of the motor car created serious problems because it was born into a world where there was neither physical nor regulatory infrastructure to govern its safe use.

A bit of history.

In the UK the Locomotive Act 1865, nicknamed the Red Flag Act, was enacted to combat the perceived menace of the new invention. 

It required any self-powered vehicle to be operated by at least three people, one of whom had to walk in front carrying a red flag to warn other road users of its approach. 

The first law addressing drink-driving did not appear until 1925, several decades after the invention of the car, but no legal alcohol limit was set until 1967.

In this context it may be unsurprising that legal regulation of the use of mobile devices while driving has been introduced in a piecemeal fashion.

If you’re old enough to remember car phones, you’ll be aware they were a combination of novelty and status symbol, which became virtually obsolete as soon as genuinely-mobile phones became available to the average consumer in the 1980s.

Once again, the law was slow to catch up, because either there was a lack of understanding regarding the potential dangers of using mobile phones while driving, or a reluctance to appear obstructive to a powerful emerging technology. 

The first laws in the UK aimed at controlling the use of mobile phones in cars were not enacted until 2003, with a three-point penalty being introduced in 2007 and doubled to six in 2017.

These provisions were still found to fall short of what was needed. 

In 2019 a driver famously won an appeal against a conviction he received after being charged with using his mobile phone while driving. He had indeed been using it, but not for communication. 

He was in fact filming the scene of a car accident, a use which fell outside the remit of the law. The original case was R v Barreto.

A solicitor specialising in motoring law, Paul Loughlin, has expressed the view that 

“the way people have used phones has changed as phones have become more and more advanced and for the sake of road safety, it is about time the law was modernised to reflect this. As ever, the challenge will come back to both education and enforcement.”

As of 25th March 2022, new rules come into effect which represent the strictest limitation on the use of mobile phones by drivers.

It is already an offence to send a text message, receive a call or make one – except in an emergency. But partly as a result of the appeal in R v Barreto – which itself applied the precedent of R v Nader Eldarf, in which the activity was scrolling through a playlist and listening to music – the government recognised the urgent need to close these loopholes.

The new laws will make it an offence to use phones to take videos or photos, to access playlists and to play games. Virtually any use of a mobile phone while driving will be against the law. 

The one significant exception is reserved for hands free operation. 

That applies to making and receiving calls – although only if the phone is already in handsfree mode before the journey begins – and using the phone as a satellite navigation device, resting in a cradle. 

Nevertheless, the police are still empowered to investigate a charge of careless driving if they consider a driver not to be in full control of the vehicle even while in handsfree mode.

While these new restrictions are surely to be welcomed, it is important to recognise the significant impact they may have on the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people for whom the use of a smartphone or other mobile device is integral to their work. 

Anyone who has taken delivery from a parcel service such as Hermes or DPD will be familiar with the diver’s handheld device on which they are obliged to provide a signature to confirm receipt, but what they may not appreciate is that couriers have their entire day’s work detailed on these devices, right down to the route order and specific delivery instructions. 

Workloads for such drivers have multiplied in size during the pandemic which means they can spend 12 hours or more carrying out deliveries. 

Any time they can save by updating their handheld devices while on the move rather than during their stops will help to shorten their days, but in the future they will have to resist this temptation.There are many other professions where the same risks will occur. 

If you consider the daily schedule of an inventory clerk, similar time pressures apply. 

On a busy day, a clerk may need to make several calls, each of which involves the capture and recording of huge amounts of information and informing of the potential dangers such as gas leaks or damage to the property when tenants are due to take up occupancy.  

These and many other scenarios often require that it is relayed to the client as soon as possible. 

While Inventory Base has developed property management software that automates as much of the process as possible, there will inevitably be occasions when a clerk needs to amend, delete or revise data before submitting a report. 

Rather than sitting in a stationary car to do this, it would seem to be a more efficient use of time to do this while en route to the next appointment. 

This is another practice that will have to be curtailed.

Anyone who uses a smartphone or handheld device in their work and for whom travelling by car is a necessity must be alert to these sweeping new restrictions. 

According to the most recent publication from the Government, will mean the offence is triggered whenever a driver holds and uses a device, regardless of why they are holding it.

This would include a device being in flight mode.

In the text of the Satutory Instruments publication, the meaning of ‘using’ a phone will be expanded to cover 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
Mobile phones – Government gives Red Light to drivers

Key Takeaways

It’s illegal to hold a phone or sat nav while driving or riding a motorcycle. 

You must have hands-free access, such as:

  • a Bluetooth headset
  • using voice command
  • a dashboard holder or mat
  • a windscreen mount
  • a built-in sat nav

The device must not block your view of the road and traffic ahead.

You must stay in full control of your vehicle at all times. 

The police can stop you if they think you’re not in control because you’re distracted and you can be prosecuted.

The law still applies to you if you’re:

  • stopped at traffic lights
  • queuing in traffic
  • supervising a learner driver

When you can use a hand-held phone

You can use a hand-held phone if either of these apply:

  • you’re safely parked
  • you need to call 999 or 112 in an emergency and it’s unsafe or impractical to stop

Penalties

You can get 6 penalty points and a £200 fine if you use a hand-held phone when driving. You’ll also lose your licence if you passed your driving test in the last 2 years.

You can get 3 penalty points if you don’t have a full view of the road and traffic ahead or proper control of the vehicle.

You can also be taken to court where you can:

The law has finally caught up with technology and practice.

Now it is time for everyone to re-educate themselves and develop new, safe and legal habits.