However, the wording of the law, which was introduced 17 years ago, allows a loophole for drivers to use their phones for other purposes without punishment.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has now confirmed that from next year the legislation will be updated to take into account the range of functions of modern phones and ban any phone use while driving
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The Highway Code will also be updated to make it clear it is illegal to use a phone when stopped at traffic lights or in traffic jams.
Under the current law, drivers are banned from using handheld devices for “interactive communication”, such as making calls, checking messages, emails and viewing websites. However, acts such as taking photos or videos while driving don’t count as interactive, allowing drivers a potential escape from punishment.
Under the changes, the law will be expanded to make it an offence to use a phone or other handheld device for non-connected mobile application actions. This will include:
- Illuminating the screen
- Unlocking the device
- Checking the time
- Checking notifications
- Rejecting a call
- Composing text messages or emails to save in drafts
- Taking photos or videos
- Using the phone’s camera as a mirror
- Searching for music stored on the phone
- Searching for photos or other images stored in the phone
- Dictating voice messages into the phone
- Reading a book downloaded on the phone
- Playing a game downloaded on the phone
An exception will be made for using contactless payment via a phone at locations such as drive-through restaurants.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “Too many deaths and injuries occur while mobile phones are being held.
“By making it easier to prosecute people illegally using their phone at the wheel, we are ensuring the law is brought into the 21st century while further protecting all road users.”
The news has been welcomed by safety campaigners.
RAC road safety spokesman Simon Williams said: “As our phones have become more sophisticated, the law has not kept pace and this has allowed some drivers who have been using their handheld phones for purposes other than communicating to exploit a loophole and avoid the maximum penalty.
“Our research suggests that more than one-in-10 younger drivers admit to taking a photo or video while driving, while 6% say they have played a game.
“While today’s announcement is clearly good news, it’s absolutely vital that the new law is vigorously enforced otherwise there’s a risk that it won’t deliver the sort of behaviour change that will make our roads safer.”
Mary Williams OBE, chief executive of road safety charity Brake, said: “Driver distraction can be deadly and using a hand-held phone at the wheel is never worth the risk. This important road safety decision by government, coinciding with Road Safety Week, is very welcomed.”