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The penalties for getting distracted while driving

In May this year, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced that the penalties for using a mobile phone at the wheel while driving would soon increase from a £60 fine and three penalty points to a £90 fine and three penalty points. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe would like to go one better and increase the penalty points too, upping them to 6 points per offence, so that a second offence would potentially trigger a driving ban (and the first offence would ban new drivers).

But what are the current penalties for driving while distracted, and how long do they last?

Penalties for using your phone at the wheel

It is illegal to use a mobile phone or other hand held device while driving, or when you are the supervising driver for a learner. Under this offence, ‘driving’ includes times when you are stationary at traffic lights or stuck in a traffic jam. Even if you are using a hands-free system, you can still be prosecuted if the police think you were distracted by it.

The penalty is three points, which stay on your licence for four years, and a fine of £60. You may also be taken to court and fined up to £1,000 or £2,500 if you drive a bus or a commercial vehicle, and you can be banned outright for the offence, although this is extremely rare. Remember, if you have passed your test less than two years ago, it only takes six penalty points to incur an automatic driving ban.

Penalties for other distractions

Another change announced by the Transport Secretary was the introduction of a new £90 fixed penalty and three points for various careless driving offences, including eating at the wheel and lighting a cigarette. These are currently covered by the careless driving laws, which are also known as ‘driving without due care or attention’.

Exactly what constitutes due care and attention is an subjective decision of the courts but, in general, you will be considered to have driven without due care and attention if your driving has ‘departed from the standard of care and attention that would have been exercised by a reasonable, prudent and competent driver’. Clearly this is open to interpretation, but there is extensive case law on the subject that sets the standards expected.

Careless driving is nothing to do with the experience or competence of the driver. It covers any ‘acts of driving caused by more than a momentary lapse of attention’, such as running a red light or driving too close. It also covers ‘conduct causing the driver to be unresponsive’, such as reading your map, using your phone or finding and lighting a cigarette.

If you are convicted of driving without due care and attention, the penalties range from three to nine points as well as an appropriate fine.

Increased insurance cost

Of course, the size of the fine could be the least of your worries when it comes to a motoring conviction. One online study, which checked 20 different car insurers, found that six points accrued within the last two years could bump up your car insurance premium by as much as 24%, and nine recent points could cost you an extra 47%. Even six older points, between two and three years old, can still increase your premium by 14%.

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