A recent report by the University of Sussex suggests using a hands-free mobile phone when driving may be as distracting as using a ‘hands-on’ one.
It is already the intention of the Government to introduce increased penalties for use of a mobile phone when driving. We can soon expect a rise in the fixed penalty for such an offence from £100 to £150, and penalty points will go up from 3 to 4. If you are a LGV driver driving a LGV, the penalty will increase from 3 to 6 points! (NB. For these purposes, a LGV will be regarded as goods vehicles over 3.5 tonnes gvw and passenger carrying vehicles capable of carrying 16 or more passengers.) Whether penalties should be determined by the size of the vehicle is open to question.
However, that change would not cover hands-free use, which of itself is not illegal. That said distraction due to hands-free phone use can form part of other separate offences such as dangerous or careless driving.
In March 2016, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee recommended that the Department of Transport fund research into the development and effective deployment of technology to detect illegal mobile phone use while driving. In May 2016, the Government responded in the following terms:
We recognise that detecting offenders using a mobile phone currently predominately relies on the offender being seen using it on the road. We know from a 2014 survey in Scotland and England, 1.6% of car drivers were observed using a hand held mobile phone; we are considering how we can better use camera technology to help secure prosecutions. Many drivers want the flexibility that in-car technology provides for safer ways of connecting, for example through Bluetooth which is rapidly becoming standard in many vehicles. Developing technology to detect mobile phone use when driving would have to cope with detecting whether a driver or a passenger is using a phone and in what circumstances i.e. whether driving or using some other form of transport.
We are aware of existing technological solutions which deter drivers not to use their phone while driving with variations of a “drive safe mode” and downloadable apps to the phone are already available. As part of the consultation to change the fixed penalty fine and increase points (which closed in March 2015) we invited views on how these could be encouraged. We would welcome working with the mobile phone industry on how drivers can be encouraged to use such devices so that there is a wider uptake or that the app becomes standard. Ultimately, use of such a device has to be supported by a change in behaviour by drivers.
Let us watch this space. In the meantime, the debate rumbles on that a lack of resourcing means that far too much mobile phone use at the wheel is going undetected. The House of Commons Committee did not accept the number of prosecutions reflected the true offending position and has said:
The proportion of drivers detected using hand-held mobile phones while driving has remained relatively constant since 2002. The changes to penalties proposed in the Government’s road safety statement are welcome and may have a beneficial effect, but they do not address the difficulties with detection. This is an area in which future technology may be used to fill the gap left by a reduction in specialised road traffic officers.
For further advice or assistance in this area, please contact a member of our Road Transport team on (Cambridge) 01223 411421 or (Milton Keynes) 01908 202150.