The Government’s decision to close a mobile phone use legal loophole has been welcomed by motoring and safety organisations but calls have been made for hands-free units to be banned too.
Announced last week, the move will close a legal loophole that saw drivers able to use mobile phones for tasks other than calls and texts (‘interactive communication’) and that allowed drivers to escape prosecution for hand-held mobile phone use while behind the wheel.
At present, the law prevents drivers from using a hand-held mobile phone to call or text. However, people caught filming or taking photos while driving have escaped punishment as lawyers have successfully argued this activity does not fit into the ‘interactive communication’ currently outlawed by the legislation.
The news also follows the Transport Committee’s ‘Report on Road Safety: Driving while using a mobile phone’, which was published in August and said the Government should look at introducing tougher penalties for all mobile phone usage behind the wheel – including banning hands-free devices, starting first with public sector drivers.
Now, the Department for Transport has announced that legislation will be revised so that any driver caught using a hand-held phone behind the wheel can be prosecuted whatever the reason; texting, taking pictures, surfing the web or scrolling for music. Spring 2020 is the likely date for implementation.
However, the new measures fall short of banning the use of hands-free mobile units in cars, something IAM RoadSmart and others have highlighted is just as distracting and dangerous as a hand-held unit.
Official figures state that in 2018 there were 683 casualties on Britain’s roads including 29 deaths and 118 serious injuries in crashes where a driver using a mobile phone was a significant factor.
Neil Greig, IAM RoadSmart director of policy and research, said: “The facts are there to see – the use of mobile phones for any purpose and in any manner while driving is distracting and potentially fatal.
“The news is good, but not good enough. The increased penalties introduced in 2017, six points and a £200 fine, did change drivers’ behaviour for a while, but bad habits are creeping back in. Drivers keep doing it because they don’t think they will get caught, and they don’t appreciate they are risking lives.
“Mobile speed cameras need to be employed more broadly to also catch drivers using hand-held phones. Drivers need to know their actions could kill.”
Brake also said it wants to see the dangers of hands-free devices addressed.
Joshua Harris, director of campaigns for Brake, said: “The Committee’s report was clear on the dangers of hands-free devices and it is troubling that they will not be banned despite the Government’s acknowledgement of the risk. The current law provides a dangerous false impression that it is safe to use a mobile phone with a hands-free kit when driving – it is not. All phone use behind the wheel is dangerous and to get this message across to drivers the law must reflect this.
“Far too many people still use their phone behind the wheel, yet it should be as unacceptable as drink driving, with research showing that reaction times whilst texting are double those of drink-drivers. We will continue to press the future new Government for further action to tackle the menace of mobile phone use behind the wheel.”
And the RAC renewed its calls for increased police targeting of mobile phone use.
Road safety spokesperson Simon Williams said: “It should be said that tightening the offence, along with increasing the penalty two years ago, is only as powerful as the level of enforcement. In the absence of technology being used to catch offenders, the decline in the number of roads police officers means there is a much lesser chance of being caught in person today than there was 10 years ago.”