Mobile phone use while driving: Policy

Policies: Hand-held vs. Hands-free vs. Total Ban

hands-free device

In most developed countries, there are restrictions on mobile phone use when driving. These limits are based on the proven risk of traffic accidents resulting from distracted driving while using a mobile phone.

In order to reduce traffic accidents caused by distracted driving, many countries have implemented legislation banning mobile phone use without a hands-free device. Correct to 2013, more than 40 countries have passed such legislation. The list includes Israel, Australia, Canada, Russia and Kenya, sixteen U.S. states and territories and all EU member states except Sweden.

There has been wide debate about whether hands-free devices for mobile phones should be allowed when driving, or whether mobile phone use while driving should be banned entirely. Current research indicates that talking on a hands-free device may increase risk of accidents as much as talking on a hand-held phone, though differences exist for the act of reaching for the phone(Reaching for the phone is a high risk task, which is presumably eliminated for mounted hands-free devices. Dialing is equally high risk, and exists for both hands-free and hand-held phones) (for further information see distracted driving). For this reason, there are those that argue that allowing hands-free devices creates the false impression that they are entirely safe to use.




Hands free - Definition

In most countries, a hands-free device is defined either as a headset/earphones, or as wireless equipment (e.g. Bluetooth). Some countries restrict this further - Malta and California rule that drivers cannot have headphones in both ears; Spain bans the use of headphones entirely. Some countries additionally require that the phone must be fixed in a mounting (Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovenia, Australia)[11-14]. One Australian state (NSW) has made it illegal for drivers to have any physical contact with a mobile phone while driving.


Other functions: Many countries have expanded legislation regarding hand-held mobile phones to include all hand-held devices such as personal navigation devices, music players and TV/video players.




As a result, a small number of countries have banned mobile phone use entirely while driving (e.g. Portugal, New Delhi (India), and Japan. In addition, a number of safety organizations have called for a complete ban on mobile phone use while driving (e.g. the National Safety Council in the US, the European Transport Safety Council at EU level, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and PACTS in the U.K., the Danish Accident Investigation Board). In most countries, legislation to this effect is considered unenforceable.


Educational approach and Future solutions 

A different approach, utilized in countries such as France, Australia, Canada, U.K. and Sweden, is to include mobile phone use under general laws related to safe driving and driver distractibility. In these cases, drivers can be prosecuted for "careless" or "dangerous" driving for causing an infringement while speaking on the phone, even if they were using a hands-free device. This leaves interpretation of prosecution to the police or the courts but usually requires that another infringement take place while the phone was being used. In some circumstances insurance coverage may also be forfeited if the driver is involved in a crash while using a mobile phone. 

  Mobile phone use while driving


Other countries are focusing on driver education to reduce mobile phone use. These countries, such as Sweden, question the effectiveness of legislation in the long term, and instead are investing in public education campaigns to encourage drivers to reduce their mobile phone use. One such campaign, developed by the U.K. government, "Think" includes mobile phone use with other road safety issues, and aims to encourage safer behavior to reduce the number of people killed and injured on the roads. This is complemented by "Road Safety Week"  run by "Brake", a road safety charity


The GSM Association (GSMA), representing mobile phone operators worldwide, recommends limited use of mobile phones while driving. Their recommendations are as follows:


  • Obey the law: In some countries it is prohibited to use handheld phones.
  • Drive safe: Don’t make or accept calls in difficult traffic conditions.
  • Don’t text: Don’t write or read texts, emails or access the Internet from a laptop or handheld device.
  • Stay in control: Avoid or end calls that are likely to be long, complex or emotional

Where hands free use is permitted for voice calls, it alone doesn’t make using a mobile device while driving safe. Drivers should consider road conditions and other factors before making or accepting a call. It may be sensible to pull-over (if this can be done safely) or wait until your trip is complete before making or taking a call.


A number of private companies are developing technological solutions, such as mobile phone apps, to prevent drivers from using their phones while driving. Obstacles that still need to be overcome to enable this to be a viable solution for drivers include: how to identify when the car is moving, limiting effects to the driver only, adaptations to different mobile phone platforms, and of course agreement on which interactions of the driver with the phone should be stopped.



Driving - Definition

It is possible to interpret the term "driving" differently, for example whether the driver is considered to be driving only when the car is moving, or also when the car is stationary but not parked, for example when stopped at a traffic light. 

  • 2009 U.S. executive order to federal employees:  "Driving" means operating a motor vehicle on an active roadway with the motor running, including while temporarily stationary because of traffic, a traffic light or stop sign, or otherwise. It does not include operating a motor vehicle with or without the motor running when one has pulled over to the side of, or off, an active roadway and has halted in a location where one can safely remain stationary.
  • Australia: Using a hand-held mobile phone is also illegal when your vehicle is stationary but not parked e.g. when you’re stopped at traffic lights.
  • U.K.: It’s illegal to ride a motorcycle or drive using hand-held phones or similar devices. The rules are the same if you’re stopped at traffic lights or queuing in traffic.


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