Legal: Using a SatNav or Phone while you ride?

Broadway Tower 1
Pulling over at a safe spot to operate your SatNav is a sensible option

Will you get into trouble with the law for using a satnav or phone while you ride? ABR’s legal expert Andrew Dalton explains all

Plenty of motorcyclists fiddle with SatNavs or select a song on a phone while they ride. But get it wrong and the law has a fair few tricks up its ermine cuffed sleeve to encourage the sensible motorcyclist to leave their devices alone in future.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Section 41D of the Road Traffic Act 1988 and Regulation 110 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986. To paraphrase the regulation, no person shall drive a motor vehicle on a road if they are using a hand-held mobile telephone, or a hand-held device of a kind (other than a two-way radio), which performs an interactive communication function by transmitting and receiving data.

The key takeaway is the word ‘handheld’. If you have a device in your hand, then you are committing an offence if you use it for any sort of communication. That includes WhatsApp, text messaging, updating your Facebook, and so on.

However, if you grab your phone to change track on your music player, you are potentially not using it for communication. But a technically savvy prosecutor could argue that a streaming service does transfer data and therefore this is an offence. So, for the biker who doesn’t want grief with the law, have your device fixed in a cradle.

Your GPS does not exchange data, it receives the GPS signal. So, because it does not transmit information back, a standalone SatNav can’t breach these rules, not least because it does not have any interactive communication function.

However, fiddling with a phone or a GPS can result in a more serious road traffic offence. If you appear to have lost control of your vehicle, even fleetingly, and even if there’s no harm to yourself or another, then you are committing the offence of riding other than in proper control of the vehicle. This is an endorsable offence with a three to six-point penalty. In these circumstances, the ‘send and receive data’ test is irrelevant because what you are fiddling with makes no odds.

If you manage to hit another vehicle or ride very badly, then other much more serious offences are also up for grabs, up to and including dangerous riding. This is because you have not made a momentary lapse, you have actively decided that your phone or SatNav operation was more important than your riding.

An annoyed police officer has every right to pull you over and write you up for a variety of offences. The High Court (and therefore binding) case of R v Baretto 2019 gives comfort to prosecutors to crank up the charge to dangerous or careless driving (which is very bad for you) for use of phones even when not used for communication. And doing anything which takes your concentration off the road can constitute an offence.

In general, keeping both hands on the controls unless you have a lawful justification for having your hand off the bars is a useful rule to follow.