19 August 2019

MPs seek law extension to ban ‘catastrophic’ use of hands-free phones when driving

MPs have called on the Government to extend the ban on the use of mobile phones while driving to include hands-free phone calls.

  • Using a mobile phone means drivers are four times more likely to collide with other road users.
  • It’s a common misconception that using a hands-free device is safe.
  • The penalty for using a mobile phone when driving is a £200 fine and six penalty points, with a maximum fine of £1,000.
  • MPs want the Government to ban hand-held mobile devices.

In a new report, the House of Commons Transport Committee says "the evidence is clear: using a mobile phone while driving is dangerous, with potentially catastrophic consequences", irrespective of whether it is hand-held or hands-free.

The Committee was told that the distraction caused by using a mobile phone - hand-held or hands-free - meant a driver was four times more likely to be involved in a collision. That is a similar risk to drink-driving.

The MPs also want "stricter enforcement of the law to prevent the 'entirely avoidable' tragedy of deaths and serious injuries from related crashes on the roads"; an overhaul of the current laws on using hand-held mobile devices while driving, to cover use irrespective of whether it involves sending or receiving data, for example filming; and consideration as to whether the current penalties for illegal use of a hand-held mobile phone should be increased.

What's more, the MPs want the Government to "lead by example" and "encourage behaviour change across the public sector and Government supply chain" so that drivers do not use any mobile phone, or other device, while driving.

TRL (Transport Research Laboratory), which gave evidence to the Committee and has published numerous reports on the impact mobile phone use has on driving says the debate should be focused on the message to drivers being "eyes on the road, their mind on the traffic situation, and their hands on the controls of their vehicle."

In 2017, there were 773 casualties, including 43 deaths and 135 serious injuries, in collisions where a driver using a mobile phone was a contributory factor. The number of people killed or seriously injured has risen steadily since 2011, according to data from the Department for Transport.

The Committee in its report, 'Road Safety: Driving While Using a Mobile Phone', makes clear that the rate of enforcement of the current law has plunged by more than two thirds since 2011. It adds: "Enforcing the law is essential to ensuring that motorists do not illegally use their mobile phone while driving."

MPs wants the Government to work with police forces to boost enforcement and make better use of technology to identify when mobile phones are being used by drivers.

Committee chairman Lilian Greenwood said: "Despite the real risk of catastrophic consequences for themselves, their passengers and other road users, far too many drivers continue to break the law by using hand-held mobile phones.

"If mobile phone use while driving is to become as socially unacceptable as drink-driving much more effort needs to go into educating drivers about the risks and consequences of using a phone behind the wheel. Offenders also need to know there is a credible risk of being caught, and that there are serious consequences for being caught.

"There is also a misleading impression that hands-free use is safe. The reality is that any use of a phone distracts from a driver's ability to pay full attention and the Government should consider extending the ban to reflect this.

"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."

Specific laws applying to the use of a hand-held mobile phone while driving were introduced in December 2003. The penalties have gradually increased over the years and are now a standard fine of £200 and six penalty points, with a maximum of up to £1,000 and six points. The fine can rise to £2,500 if driving a bus, coach or HGV. Under current UK case law, 'driving' includes being stationary if a vehicle's engine is running, including in traffic queues and at traffic lights. It is not a specific offence to use a hands-free mobile phone while driving.

Road safety campaigners have welcomed the MPs' report, but are concerned as to how drivers will be caught and any ban on hands-free mobile phone use can be enforced, with a lack of police numbers.

Neil Greig, IAM RoadSmart director of policy and research, said: "Multi-tasking is a myth and any form of smartphone use at the wheel is distracting. Clarifying the law so that any use of a phone that involves holding it or placing in the driver's lap is made illegal should be a top Government priority.

"New laws and tougher penalties are welcome but will only work if the fear of being caught is increased. Technology is changing however, and with the introduction of call blocking while in motion and other such measures, we would support the legislative change to ban hands-free to match hand-held."

RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: "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.

"Drivers should also be aware that even if using a hands-free device, if they are not in proper control of a vehicle, then the police can take enforcement action."