Mobile phone driving law explained: what the current rules are and how they will change in 2021

Using a mobile phone while driving is already illegal but new legislation is expected later this year that will tighten up certain loopholes. Last year the Department for Transport launched a consultation into changing the law amid complaints that the legislation from 2003 did not reflect the range of functions on modern smartphones. That consultation closed in mid-January and depending on the feedback the proposed changes could come into force within months.

What is the current law?

Currently, it is illegal to use a handheld mobile phone for “interactive communication” such as making calls and sending text messages, checking emails or viewing websites.

It is also illegal to use a handheld phone as a sat nav device or to use a handheld sat nav.

The law applies while the car is in motion and if you are stopped at traffic lights or in a queue of traffic. It also applies if you are supervising a learner driver.

You can only use a handheld phone if you are safely parked or you need to make an emergency call to 999 or 112 and cannot stop safely to do so.

What are the penalties?

If you are caught using a mobile phone while driving you will be fined £200 and given six penalty points on your licence.

Courts can also fine car drivers up to £1,000, and HGV and bus drivers up to £2,500 while issuing a driving disqualification.

Why is the law changing?

The original legislation around mobile phone use is almost 18 years old and doesn’t reflect all the features of modern smartphones.

Drivers charged with using a phone while driving in recent years have successfully argued that actions such as filming or taking photos do not count as interactive communication and aren’t illegal under the existing law.

The changes proposed by the DfT aim to address this loophole.

What are the proposed changes?

The DfT consultation proposes “expanding the offence of using a hand-held mobile phone while driving to include non-connected mobile application actions”, in other words making it illegal to use a handheld phone for any purpose while driving.

The banned activities will include but not be limited to a driver touching a handheld phone to:

  • Illuminate the screen
  • Unlock the device
  • Check the time
  • Check notifications
  • Reject a call
  • Compose text messages or emails 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

The wording will also be revised to encompass phones and “other hand-held interactive communication devices” such as tablets, gaming devices and electronic notepads.

However, the changes will not affect the hands-free use of devices or the use of a device mounted in a holder or cradle.

When will the new law be in place?

An exact date for any changes has not been set but the DfT has previously said that changes should be implemented “urgently”. With the consultation now closed, it is expected that any changes should be brought into law later this year.