Fraser Nelson

A deleted tweet shows how even police are confused by the law on SatNavs

A deleted tweet shows how even police are confused by the law on SatNavs
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Yesterday, the Greater Manchester Police tweeted out the above picture claiming that that 'the only legal place' to put a SatNav is 'the bottom right hand side of your windscreen… everywhere else is illegal.' It was quite untrue. Deliciously, the picture showed a suspicious mark on the middle of the car windscreen that looked very much as if the police themselves had been holding their SatNav in the wrong place (see enlargement below).

When this evidence was widely shared, and mocked, the Tweet was deleted without comment. A shame, because it's a great example of how the absence of any modern law on driving, mobile phone and SatNav use is leaving even police confused about the law.

Greater Manchester Police have been in touch to admit that the tweet was incorrect (statement below) but they cannot be blamed for the confusion. They have been instructed to crack down on motorists, but they have not been given any legal guidance as to what constitutes an offence.

One of Chris Grayling’s first acts as Transport Secretary was to upgrade the penalty for using a mobile phone while driving to six points. But what counts as "use"? He didn't say. He is relying on a 1988 law, written when mobiles were the size of a brick. Interpreting that law today is nothing more than guesswork. Jimmy Carr was acquitted after using a Dictaphone App at the wheel, because that didn’t count as an 'interactive communication'. Almost half of young drivers take photos at the wheel, according to a RAC survey. Illegal? The law doesn’t say. This is a dangerous situation: the law is intended to deter criminal behaviour, and we cannot be deterred if we are not told what we should not be doing. When even the police issue incorrect statements, who are we to believe?

But putting your smartphone in a cradle, then resetting it at traffic lights, is okay, surely? As long as you don't hold it, surely? Here's Paul Grieve from Cleveland Police...

The moment you touch or handle your mobile phone as part of your journey, then in effect an offence is being committed… If you are stationary at traffic lights or in a traffic jam, then you cannot touch or hold a mobile phone. You can only do this if your journey has ended

Inspector Grieve is as wrong about touching SatNavs as Manchester Police were about where to dock them. The 1988 law relates to 'handheld' mobile phones and says nothing about touching those not being held. Recently, a Met policeman told court that it was illegal to hold a mobile phone when the engine was running. It's not: using a phone is an offence, holding isn't. Such odd interpretations of the law are everywhere, and there is no official legal guidance because there is no post-1988 law on SatNav use.

The legal confusion can only be cleared up by Chris Grayling. As a former Justice Secretary, he will be familiar with the point made by the late Tom Bingham, a former Lord Chief Justice about the need for clear laws.

'If you or I are liable to be prosecuted, fined and perhaps imprisoned for doing or failing to do something, we ought to be able, without undue difficulty, to find out what it is we must or must not do on pain of criminal penalty.'

I quoted this in my Daily Telegraph column detailing  my own brush with the law here. Matthew Scott, a criminal barrister, looks into it in this excellent article. This is something that will affect millions of motorists every day; each week 250 end up in court. Many of them would never be there had proper law existed.

I'm afraid Chris Grayling is to blame for he confusion.  He needs to either amend the 1988 legislation or pass a new, modern law governing smartphone use. If even the police are getting the law wrong, then it really is time to worry.

PS For the record, here is the deleted tweet.

And below is the statement issued to me from Greater Manchester Police. 

“Earlier today, Friday 5 January, we became aware that a tweet from one of our accounts contained factually incorrect information. As soon as we were aware, we deleted the tweet and have now issued the below information about using a Sat Nav:

If you need to put your Sat Nav on your windscreen, the law states that you must make sure that you position it so it is not obscuring your view. If you get stopped by the police and have a device that is deemed to be obscuring your view you may be prosecuted and could face a £50 fine. Options for positioning your Sat Nav to ensure it does not obscure your view include:

• Placing your Sat Nav at the very bottom of your windscreen. This will keep the vast majority of your view unobscured.

• Keeping it to the side. If you can keep it down to your right or left-hand side, out of your general view, do so. Placing the device directly in front of you is obscuring your view and could be an offence.

• Avoiding putting your Sat Nav on the side window. You are required to have a clear view of your side mirrors at all times.

• Putting it as low down as possible if you do need to place it in the centre of your windscreen.

“If you are found to be touching or engaging with a Sat Nav while driving you could be additionally prosecuted for “Not being in proper control of your vehicle." This can lead to three points and a fine of £100. Don’t forget, using any mobile device (like a phone) as a Sat Nav carries the same legal responsibilities. Always stay in control of the vehicle you are driving.

Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. He is also a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.