A new report – which calls for the Government to take tougher action to tackle mobile phone usage by drivers – has been broadly welcomed by road safety stakeholders.
The Transport Committee report, published today (13 August), calls for an overhaul of mobile phone laws, including extending the ban to hands-free devices.
The report encourages the Government to work with police forces to boost enforcement – and to review and potentially increase penalties for the offence, so that it is clear there are serious consequences to being caught.
Lilian Greenwood MP, chair of the Committee, said: “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.”
Steve Horton, Road Safety GB’s director of communications, said: “Based on the clear research evidence on impairment and distraction, if the laws governing mobile phones and driving were developed now it is very likely that hands-free phone use would also be banned.
“Many drivers believe that because using a hands-free phone while driving is legal, that it must be safe.
“We would argue that while it may be legal to drive at the drink drive limit or at the speed limit, it doesn’t mean it’s safe to do so.
“Any education message needs the backup of the law to reinforce the right behaviour choice, so the fear of detection is critical; in setting expectations we confirm the view of society around the behaviour.
“Just because it’s hard to always enforce we still should send out the clear message that if and when caught the full weight of the law will be applied; it’s not possible to catch everyone who speeds or who drink drives – but society is clear in its condemnation of these behaviours.
“We know there are a myriad of other distractions for drivers including eating, dealing with children, switching the radio over, listening to music – but these tend to be short lived and ignored or ceased when a complex driving situation arises.
“Mobile phone distraction is totally different – whilst other distractions can impair drivers they can be easier to manage than someone discussing something unrelated to the journey.”
Control of hands-free mobile phones ‘long overdue’
IAM RoadSmart has welcomed the report, saying it is time to ensure drivers are fully aware of how dangerous a hands-free mobile phone can be.
Neil Greig, IAM RoadSmart director of policy and research, said: “IAM RoadSmart strongly welcomes the report as it fully confirms what we have known for some time – 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.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s for music selection or social media updates, it all increases risk behind the wheel particularly for new drivers.”
However, the road safety charity says enforcement will be ‘near impossible’ without new technology and more police officers.
Neil Greig added: “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 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 time has come for new technology – RAC
The RAC supports the call for the Government to look more closely at the effectiveness increasing penalties for the offence.
It stresses the importance of police forces having sufficient resources and technology to carry out adequate enforcement.
Nicholas Lyes, RAC head of roads policy, 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.”
Stronger laws needed to change culture
Road safety charity Brake is urging the Government to consider their recommendations as a priority.
Joshua Harris, director of campaigns for Brake, said: “Using a phone whilst driving can impair you as much as driving drunk but stronger laws and tougher enforcement are needed to make it as culturally unacceptable as drink driving.
“The Government must clarify the law on using hand-held mobile devices while driving and close loopholes which treat sending or receiving data differently.
“The current law also provides a dangerous false impression that it is safe to use a mobile phone with a hands-free kit – it is not.
“All phone use behind the wheel is dangerous, and we need the law to reflect this by banning the use of hands-free devices.”
Mobile phone debate ‘misses the point’
However, while TRL has welcomed a debate about hands-free and held-held mobile phone use, it claims that the Transport Committee report misses the point.
Shaun Helman, TRL’s chief scientist, said: “This report on driving and mobile phones is to be welcomed, for focusing our attention on a pressing and growing road safety issue.
“As someone who provided evidence to the committee, I don’t need convincing that the use of a mobile device while controlling a vehicle is something that must be considered by those seeking to reduce death and injury on the road.
“I also believe that the debate we keep having on this issue misses the important points, time and time again.
“First, the phrase ‘hands-free’ misleads us by making us think that if a task ‘leaves the hands free’ then it will not be distracting.
“Second, the phrase ‘hand-held’ misleads us by making us think that it is the ‘holding’ a device that is the worst thing to be doing with the hands while driving.
“It isn’t; there are many other ways in which a driver can manipulate a device and which are much more likely to cause a crash – texting, browsing social media, scrolling through app functions and so-on.
“I think we can all agree that if someone is driving, we would like them to have their eyes on the road, their mind on the traffic situation, and their hands on the controls of their vehicle.
“This characterisation of the issue would mean that recommendations can be focused on enabling these ideals, rather than on banning certain types of device use on the basis of false dichotomies.”