Last reviewed 20 January 2016

Significant numbers of people admit to taking work-related phone calls when they are driving. Vicky Powell examines the issue of mobile phones, including hands-free kits, in the context of occupational road safety policies and asks whether employers are properly managing the risks.

The law on mobile phones

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has pointed out that, “Managing the risks to employees who drive at work requires more than just compliance with road traffic legislation.”

The Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 requires employers to take appropriate steps to ensure the health and safety of their employees and others who may be affected by their activities when at work. This includes the time when they are driving at work, whether this is in a company or hired vehicle, or in the employee’s own vehicle.

The HSE also acknowledges that there will always be risks associated with driving and although these cannot be completely controlled, an employer has a responsibility to take all reasonable steps to manage these risks.

The HSE guidance Driving at Work asks, “Do drivers know they must not use a hand-held mobile phone while driving and that even using a hands-free phone can seriously affect concentration?”

In terms of the law, it is illegal to drive using hand-held mobile phones and the rules are the same even if drivers have stopped at traffic lights or are queuing in traffic.

Drivers caught using a hand-held phone while driving will receive an automatic fixed penalty notice, with three penalty points on their licence and a fine of £100. The case could also go to court, with the result that drivers could be disqualified from driving and get the maximum fine of £1000. Drivers of buses or goods vehicles could get a maximum fine of £2500.

The AA warns that these offences apply simply if drivers are seen using a mobile while driving. If driving is bad, or if there is a crash while a driver is using the phone, there may be a prosecution for careless driving, dangerous driving or, if someone is killed, for causing death by careless or dangerous driving. In such cases, fines can be much greater, and, the AA warns, “prison becomes almost certain if a death is caused”.

Hands-free kits for work calls — safer or not?

Legally, drivers can use hands-free phones, sat navs and two-way radios when driving. However, if the police believe a driver is distracted and not in control of the vehicle they could still get stopped and penalised.

Therefore, the AA points out that while it is an offence to be seen using a hand-held phone, regardless of whether driving has been affected, this is not the case for hands-free phones.

When a driver is seen not to be in control of a vehicle while using a hands-free phone, he or she can be prosecuted for that offence. In such cases, the penalties are the same as for using a hand-held phone.

The AA warns that employers may be open to prosecution if:

  • they cause or permit workers to drive while using a phone or to not have proper control of the vehicle

  • they require workers to make or receive calls while driving

  • workers drive dangerously because they are using a phone installed by the employer.

Of course, police may check phone records when investigating fatal and serious crashes to determine if use of a phone contributed to the accident.

The road safety charity Brake has long been campaigning for the Government to ban hands-free phones at the wheel, in line with the evidence that they increase crash risk just as much as hand-held phones.

A source at Brake said, “It’s the distraction of the phone conversation itself that causes the danger.”

The charity warns that using a mobile at the wheel, even with a hands-free kit, has a similar effect on reaction time and ability to drink driving, and makes drivers four times more likely to be in a crash that causes injury.

Brake has urged employers to ban all phone use, including hands-free phones, for employees driving on company time. The charity has also appealed to drivers to put their phones on silent and out of reach before getting behind the wheel.

Julie Townsend, Deputy Chief Executive of Brake, said, “Companies can help to make this common practice by introducing a complete ban on phone use at the wheel and on staff speaking to anyone who's driving.”

Are workers using mobile phones at the wheel?

Despite the dangers of using mobile phones and even hands-free kits at the wheel, it seems that many people are indeed taking work-related phone calls when they are driving.

Brake recently conducted a survey of 1000 drivers from across the UK on the sources of phone distraction for drivers, and found that one in six drivers (17%) have admitted taking a work-related call while driving.

The findings were even more alarming for young drivers aged 17 to 24 years old, with almost half (49%) of young drivers admitting having taken a work-related call while driving.

Other research by Brake has also highlighted the negative impact of certain forms of technology, particularly the prevalence of hands-free mobile phone kits in vehicles owned and supplied by employers.

The survey polled 131 organisations that employ drivers, representing nearly 26,000 vehicles and 40,000 people driving for work. The results found that hands-free kits were present in some, most or all vehicles: in two-thirds (68%) of HGV fleets and four in five (80%) of the cars fleets surveyed.

Only four percent of employers said they made use of technology that prevents mobile phone use behind the wheel.

With regard to texting while driving for work, Brake cites figures which indicate that nearly a third of at-work drivers (31%) admit to having texted while driving, compared to 28% of non-work drivers, implying that those who drive for work take greater risks than the average driver.

Commenting on the research, Julie Townsend, said, “People who drive as part of their job should be taking great care to stay within the law and not put people in danger, but according to these results, at-work drivers are more likely to take many deadly risks than other drivers. We are urging all employers to ensure they have comprehensive safe driving policies in place.”

Occupational road risk policy

In the UK, the cost to employers of at-work road crashes is estimated to be more than £2.7 billion a year and more than a quarter of all road traffic incidents may involve somebody who is driving as part of their work at the time. At-work drivers are 26% more likely to be in a crash than people driving on their own time.

For all of these reasons, a policy which clearly sets out the rules with regard to mobile phones and driving for work is recommended by health and safety experts, either as a standalone document or as an add-on to the broader occupational road risk policy for the organisation.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) has published guidance entitled Driving for Work: Mobile Phones. Perhaps not surprisingly, the sample policy in the guidance suggests, “Staff who drive for work must never use a hand-held or hands-free phone while driving.”

Driving is the riskiest activity most employees engage in, with road crashes accounting for 39% of work-related deaths in the EU.

However, an effective policy can ensure that organisations can access the business and communication benefits of mobile phones, without the financial and safety risks of staff using mobile phones while driving on work journeys.