Calls from MPs for the Government to look at introducing tougher penalties for all mobile phone usage behind the wheel – including banning hands-free devices – have been welcomed by motoring and road safety members of the Great British Fleet Event.
The new report from MPs from the House of Commons Transport Committee says the practice of using a hand-held mobile phone or other device while driving “is still troublingly widespread and can have catastrophic consequences”.
The Road Safety: driving while using a mobile phone report outlines that although using a hand-held mobile phone or other device while driving has been illegal since 2003 – with the penalties doubled in 2017 – the number of casualties from crashes where a driver using a mobile phone was a contributory factor has risen over the last nine years. In 2017 there were 773 casualties, including 43 fatalities and 135 serious injuries, in road traffic collisions where mobile phone use contributed. This was down slightly from the 780 casualties and 137 serious injuries in 2016 but fatalities had risen from the 35 in 2016. The figures are also drastically up from 2009, when there were 15 fatalities, 68 serious injuries and a total of 509 casualties.
The report also questions the Government’s decision to not include hands-free usage when it announced in 2003 that it would proceed with the new mobile phone offence. Speaking at the time, the then Transport Minister stated that the Department for Transport considered that drivers should not use hands-free phones, but it was not proposed to include these within the scope of the new regulation due to enforcement difficulties.
However, a one-off evidence session held by the Transport Select Committee as a background to the new report, saw Dr Gemma Briggs, senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University, Dr Shaun Helman, chief scientist on transportation and behavioural science at the Transport Research Laboratory, and Nick Lyes, head of roads policy at the RAC, all give evidence on the dangers of hands-free usage.
Dr Shaun Helman told MPs: “Being at the UK legal limit for alcohol blood level is essentially the same amount of distraction, if not slightly less, than having a hands-free call.”
And while that high level of impairment only remained for the duration of the call, Dr Gemma Briggs added that for around five minutes after a driver has ended a phone conversation, whether hand-held or hands-free, they are still at significantly increased risk of being involved in a collision.
As such, the report notes that using a mobile phone or other device while driving impairs a person’s ability to drive safely and makes a road traffic collision more likely. This is true whether a device is hand-held or being used hands-free. However, it does also acknowledge the difficulties of making hands-free illegal, in terms of fleets running drivers out in the field and also in terms of enforcement.
In response, MPs have recommended the Government explore options for extending the hand-held mobile ban to hands-free devices and say it should publish a public consultation on this by the end of 2019.
And it recommends that all directly employed Government workers should be told not to use any mobile phone device – including hands-free – while driving with a view to making this a requirement for the wider public sector and Government contractors.
The report also calls for increased enforcement on hand-held mobile phone usage, with Nick Lyes, from the RAC, having informed MPs that when penalties increased in 2017 there was some change to behaviour, but that the RAC’s most recent research showed that “bad habits were creeping back in”.
As such, MPs urged the Government assess and report on the effectiveness of the 2017 increase in penalties for driving while using a mobile phone – including looking at whether the current penalties should be increased.
MPs also urged the Government to ramp up mobile phone usage enforcement – making use of its current roads policing review – and look at how increased enforcement can work alongside public awareness campaigns.
Chair of the Committee, Lilian Greenwood MP, said: “Each death and serious injury which results from a driver using a mobile phone is a tragedy that is entirely avoidable. We need tougher restrictions, better enforcement and more education to make our roads safer for all.”
The report has been welcomed by motoring and road safety organisations, including IAM RoadSmart, which said control of hands-free mobile phone was “long overdue” but added enforcement would be near impossible without new tech and more police.
Neil Greig, director of policy and research, said: “New laws and tougher penalties are welcome but will only work if the fear of being caught is increased. This can be done through more high-profile policing but could also be given an immediate boost by issuing clear guidelines for the use of mobile speed cameras to prosecute any driver they spot with a phone to their ear.
“The final piece in the jigsaw for IAM RoadSmart would be a revamping of the mobile phone awareness course with every first offender being sent on one to see and feel the real impact of their behaviour.”
The RAC also said urgent action on mobile phone usage was needed. Head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “Many lives are needlessly lost by drivers having handheld phone conversations, texting and looking at, or even posting on social media when behind the wheel.”
He added: “Before outlawing hands-free phone use at the wheel we believe the Government should focus all its attention on enforcing the current law which has been in place since 2003 yet is still flouted on a daily basis by thousands of drivers. The falling number of roads police officers has clearly not helped the enforcement situation. This is why we feel the time has come to look at new technology capable of photographing offenders using their handheld phones while driving. If hands-free use were to be banned then it could arguably be even harder to catch drivers in the act than it is now.”
He also warned that: “Drivers should also be aware that even if you are using a hands-free device, if you are not in proper control of the vehicle, then the police can take enforcement action.”
To read the Transport Select Committee report, click here.