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White Van Man set to cause chaos with smartphone driving rules

Court Legal

A North London builder has potentially opened Pandora’s box after successfully challenging a conviction for using a smartphone while driving.

On 20th July 2018, Ramsey Barreto was found guilty of using his smartphone while driving his VW Caravelle along Field End Road in Ruislip, filming a traffic incident. The case seemed to be a relatively simple one as there is video evidence of the crime, though Barreto’s lawyers have successfully overturned the conviction in the High Courts, as he was using the video function of the device not the communication components.

This might sound like somewhat of a humorous incident with ‘The Man’ ending-up on the losing side for once, but case could see hundreds of challenges to previous convictions for similar offenses.

“The legislation does not prohibit all use of a mobile phone held while driving. It prohibits driving while using a mobile phone or other device for calls and other interactive communication,” said Lord Justice Gross of the Court of Appeal.

This ruling does not necessarily mean Barreto is off-the-hook, as Lord Justice Gross noted in his opinion that using a smartphone while driving can still be presented as careless or dangerous driving, but Barreto cannot be convicted through Section 41D of the Road Traffic Act 1988 and Regulation 110 of the Road Vehicles Construction and Use Regulations 1986.

This is where is gets complicated and mere mortals who have not studied the intricacies of the law will find themselves in a bit of bother. The legislation is very specific, and this is where Barreto’s lawyers have found adequate wiggle room.

In Regulation 110, Section 4, a handheld mobile device is described as one which ‘performs an interactive communication function by transmitting and receiving data’. In Section 6, the device can be treated as a mobile telephone if it is ‘making or receiving a call or performing any other interactive communications function’.

The fact Barreto was using his smartphone is not being disputed here. A police officer at the scene of the incident saw and confronted Barreto for holding his smartphone up to the window of the vehicle for ’10 to 15 seconds’. The lawyers have argued there is nothing specifically mentioned in the law that prevents a driver from using a device for its other functions outside of phone calls and messaging. As he was making a video, he has not broken the laws which the prosecution pointed to during the original trial.

This is where the UK, and everyone else for that matter, has been struggling in the digital economy; rules and regulations have been written for a by-gone era. In this instance, the rules were written in 2003 when mobile devices did little more than make calls and texts. There are no specific clauses or sections which address the functionality incorporated in the devices during the subsequent 16 years.

Laws are very complicated to understand because of the complex manner in which they are written. This is perfectly understandable, as there needs to be as little grey areas as possible when applying the law. In practice, the specificity of laws allows for certain individuals to escape conviction, though the only other option would be to make the language more nuanced and present a much greater risk of abuse.

The issue which we are facing in the UK right now is that of dated regulation and legislation. Many of the rules were written during the early 00s, or in some cases the 90s, and these act as the building blocks of todays legislative and regulatory landscape. Think about how much the world and technology has changed over the last five years, let alone the last two decades. Anything written back then should be considered pre-historic.

Although it is a lot easier said than done, many of the rules which govern the UK need a revamp to ensure they are fit-for-purpose in the digital economy. Technology is infiltrated every aspect of our lives, from communications to privacy, through to banking and healthcare. If legislation and regulation does not reflect the evolving nature of technology, its features and applications in society, it is not serving its purpose.

Now the big question which remains is how many more drivers will appeal their own case using this ruling as precedent.


2 comments

  1. Boris Johnson 01/08/2019 @ 2:05 pm

    Presumably police will just prosecute for dangerous driving in future. This guy may get off the hook if he can’t be tried twice for same thing. Sounds like a lovely rubbernecker.

    • Jamie Davies Jamie Davies 01/08/2019 @ 2:22 pm

      I’m not a lawyer so not an expert in this field whatsoever, but does Double Jeopardy apply when the charges are different? Dangerous or careless driving would be a different argument from what was being presented here which was using a phone while driving. Its nuance, so I can’t give you a concrete answer either way

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