Fleet News

Fleets unaware or confused about new laws on phone use while driving

Man on mobile phone while driving

Fleets are being urged to make their drivers aware of new rules for using a mobile phone while driving after exclusive research suggested a high level of ignorance.

Two-out-of-five respondents to a Fleet News poll (42%) said they were not aware the Government was updating the legislation, while a further one-in-20 (5%) knew the law was being tightened, but thought it was not happening for six months or more.

The new rules, which will make it illegal to handle your phone in virtually all circumstances when driving, came into force on Friday, March 25

Reassuringly, almost half (46%) of respondents recognised that the law was being overhauled, but one-in-10 of those did not have a clue what was included in the new legislation.

“We still need to ensure drivers are aware of these changes,” Matt Hammond, Altrad UK

Seven-out-of-10 respondents (73%) correctly said that drivers will now not be able to handle their phones in virtually all circumstances, but only 39% knew a mobile phone would have to be secured in a cradle when using it as a sat-nav.

A similar amount (37%) also accurately identified that the new rules make it illegal to send, receive or upload a photo or video on a phone while behind the wheel.

Just one-in-10 thought, incorrectly, that the new laws would prevent making a hands-free call.

With so many drivers in the dark, a high number are at risk of falling foul of the law and ending up with points on their licence.    

Fleet policies will typically cover the use of mobile phones while driving, with some fleets even placing a ban on hands-free calls.

However, those company rules will not extend to a van driver when behind the wheel of his or her own car, for example, meaning points could be accrued, causing a headache for even the strictest of fleet managers.

Anyone caught using a hand-held device while driving will face a £200 fixed penalty notice and six points on their licence.

This means an instant ban for HGV drivers or for motorists that passed their test in the past two years. HGV drivers also face a maximum fine of £2,500 for a mobile phone offence.

Matt Hammond, head of fleet at Altrad UK, which employs a strict ban on phone use while driving, including hands-free devices, has been educating drivers ahead of the rule change. 

“We still need to ensure drivers are aware of these changes, especially the definition of ‘parked’ not just stopped in traffic and what is now classed as mobile phone use outside of making and receiving calls,” he said.

“To ensure drivers are aware of the changes we have been carrying out toolbox talks with our drivers, distributing a simple leaflet showing what is not permitted and the potential fines.

“We’ve reinforced this through our internal intranet site and with on-site posters.”

What are the new rules?

The Government announced late last year that it would tighten the rules on the use of mobile phones, making it illegal to use a hand-held device under virtually any circumstance while driving.

It was already illegal to text or make a phone call (other than in an emergency) using a hand-held device while driving.

However, now the law has been updated to reflect smartphone technology and the different ways people use them. For example, drivers are not able to handle their phone to scroll through a playlist or send, receive or upload a video.

It is also illegal for a driver to able to handle their phone to check the time. 

The law still allows drivers to continue using a device hands-free while driving, such as a sat-nav, if it’s secured in a cradle.

However, if police decide that they are not to be in proper control of their vehicle, they can be charged with careless driving.

Separate research, from Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, found that almost half (46%) of the van drivers who responded to its survey, are risking a £200 fine and six penalty points on their licence as a result of using a sat-nav app on their smartphone.

While it is still legal to use sat-nav on a mobile phone while driving, it must now be safely secured to the dashboard or windscreen, where it must not block your view.

A spokesman for the road safety group GEM Motoring Assist said: “The updated law removes any opportunity to interpret what’s allowed and what’s not. If you’re holding a phone while driving – and that includes when you’re stopped at lights or in a queue – you can be prosecuted.”

Specific mobile phone driving laws were introduced in December 2003 which saw motorists handed a £60 fine for an offence before rising to £100 in 2013.

Fines increased to £200 and penalty points endorsements doubled in 2017, to act as a further deterrent.

Why was the law updated?

Existing legislation had made it a criminal offence to use a hand-held mobile phone to call or text while driving, but not for other actions such as taking photos.

The law said that an offence is committed if a driver uses a handheld mobile phone for “interactive telecommunication” while behind the wheel.

The phrase reflected how, when the law was written in 2003, smartphones were not in existence and mobile devices were used for sending texts or making calls.

It has enabled lawyers to successfully argue that using a phone’s camera while driving does not constitute “interactive telecommunication”.

It was brought to a head in 2019, when the Director of Public Prosecutions lodged an appeal with the High Court after Ramsey Barreto had a conviction quashed for filming a crash on his mobile phone

The 51-year-old was prosecuted and found guilty after police saw him driving past an accident using his phone to make a video.

However, he had the conviction overturned at Isleworth Crown Court, after his lawyers successfully argued that the law only banned the use of mobile phones to speak or communicate while behind the wheel.

Publishing its decision in July 2019, the High Court dismissed the appeal, agreeing with Barreto’s lawyers.

The Government launched a consultation on mobile phone use while driving in October 2020 to close the loophole in the original law. It announced the new rules in November, last year.

Distracted driving

Keith Cook, deputy financial controller for group finance operations at Computacenter, already had the fleet risk management policies in place to cater for the changes and has, instead, been looking at what else is potentially distracting drivers.

“Our driver distraction risk management focus is now moving on to distraction caused by interaction with in-car ‘infotainment’ systems,” explained Cook.

“And also, the increased street signage – especially in some parts of London where, even with a 20mph limit, you’d actually have to stop to fully read some signage to figure out the access restrictions for time and type of vehicle for some roads.”

Road safety experts recently told Fleet News that the Government had ‘missed a trick’ by still permitting hands-free calls and not tackling the potential risks around distracted driving from infotainment systems.

Shaun Helman, chief scientist for behavioural and data sciences at TRL (Transport Research Laboratory), had welcomed the legislation being updated, but believes it could be construed as a “bad thing” by retaining the focus on hand-held devices.

Types of distraction

There are four types of distraction: manual, visual, auditory and cognitive. Helman explained that the new law still on focuses on just one of those, labelling it a “missed opportunity”, while maintaining a “flawed narrative” that, as long as a driver’s not holding something, they are safe.

Research from IAM RoadSmart has shown that infotainment systems impair reaction times behind the wheel more than the use of alcohol and cannabis.

The study – undertaken by TRL on behalf of IAM RoadSmart, the FIA and the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund – found that reaction times at motorway speeds increased average stopping distances to between four and five car lengths. It said that drivers took their eyes off the road for as long as 16 seconds while driving and using touch control resulted in reaction times
that were even worse than texting while driving.

Simon turner, campaign manager for Driving for Better Business Business, urges fleets to not allow drivers to be lulled into a false sense of what’s right and wrong, read more here.

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