Mobile phones continue to be a central component of modern life. They’re the wellspring of a million different ways to connect us with other people, with updates pouring in from social media, direct messaging and the latest deals.
But there’s one element of our lives that hasn’t benefited from the evolution of mobile phones: driving. For the past two decades, our relationships with mobile phones behind the wheel have become far more complicated, with laws introduced to ensure people are prioritising safety above notifications.
In this guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know about using your mobile phone while driving. We’ll delve into new legislation around using phones in the car, switching to hands-free communication, and where the law stands on things like sat navs and headphones.
Using a handset while driving
Is it illegal to use a mobile phone while driving?
It is illegal to hold a phone or a sat nav while driving in the UK. This includes using your phone when the car is stationary if it’s still running: for example, at traffic lights, queueing in traffic, or while supervising a learner driver.
Using a mobile phone while driving first became illegal in December 2003. From 2007, the law was updated to be stricter on motorists who broke it; they could incur three penalty points on their licence on top of a £60 fine, which went up again to £100 in 2013.
What’s the penalty for being caught using a mobile phone while driving today?
If you’re caught using your mobile phone while driving today, you can get six penalty points on your driving licence and a £200 fine.
For new drivers, it’s important to remember that you’ll lose your licence if you receive six penalty points within two years of passing your test.
Even for more experienced drivers, receiving 12 points in a three-year period can also result in having your licence revoked, which is just two instances of replying to a message, or taking a call.
There are also more severe consequences if your mobile phone use is found to be particularly dangerous by the police, including:
- A driving ban
- A maximum fine of £1,000 (this increases to £2,500 if you’re driving a bus or lorry)
Are there any scenarios in which using a mobile phone in the car is permitted?
While there is almost no reason you should be using a handset behind the wheel, the law does stipulate a couple of scenarios in which using a mobile phone might be permitted:
- If you’re safely parked with the engine off
- If you need to call 999 in an emergency and it’s unsafe to stop first
Using hands-free phones when driving
Are hands-free phones allowed when driving?
Yes, you are allowed to use a fully hands-free phone while driving. However, you are not permitted to pick it up — either the phone or the hands-free set itself — to communicate once the car has started.
While they’re not illegal, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents strongly advises against using hands-free devices while driving. The risks aren’t really reduced, as it’s the distracted driving and divided attention that causes problems.
Can I set up a hands-free device when driving?
No — any hands-free mobile phone device needs to be set up before you start driving. It is vital that you are able to take calls without touching the device because the Department for Transport (DfT) is in the process of updating the law to prevent hand-held phone use in any capacity while driving.
Using a phone for other purposes
Can I use my phone as a sat nav?
You can use your phone as a sat nav as long as you’ve set it up properly before you start your journey and you don’t touch it while your car is running.
It also needs to be positioned in a way that lets you see the road at all times — for example, a phone holder attached to your windscreen. However, if your phone is obstructing your view of the road, you could be breaking the law, so make sure it’s low enough so you can clearly see cars and obstacles ahead.
With navigation serving as the main motive to use a phone at the same time as driving, the purchase of a separate satellite navigation device that operates hands-free could help motorists to adhere to mobile phone driving laws.
Can I wear headphones connected to my phone while driving?
While there is no specific law that prevents you from using headphones while driving, police can still issue penalties for drivers if they’re deemed to be distracted.
Many motorists may wear headphones to be able to use their phones hands-free, as many modern headphones come with an inbuilt microphone. However, headphones can block out important audio cues that would normally prevent accidents, including emergency sirens, level crossing signals and even noise made by pedestrians or cyclists. For this reason, wearing headphones while driving can impair your ability to spot hazards — and increase the likelihood that you’re involved in an accident.
If police think your driving is potentially dangerous because your headphones are distracting you, you could be charged with driving without due care and attention, or careless driving.
If you are charged with careless driving because of your headphones, you’ll incur a £100 on-the-spot fine and three penalty points on your licence. If you're involved in a serious incident — or if the charge is contested in court — you could face more severe consequences, including an eventual fine of as much as £5,000, nine points added to your licence, and even a driving ban imposed by the court.
Make the right call
Keeping your mobile phone out of sight — and preferably switched off — while driving is one of the most effective ways of ensuring that you’re driving more safely.
However, with so many other drivers on the road (not all of them as responsible as you may be), there’s never a guarantee that you won’t be involved in an accident. That’s why you need to have an insurance policy in place designed to keep you covered for any eventuality.
At Swinton Insurance, we’ve been providing Car Insurance to our customers for more than 60 years. We understand what drivers need from their policy, which is why our Car Insurance is fully comprehensive, whatever the level of cover you choose.
Find out more by visiting our Car Insurance page today.