Penalties to increase for mobile phone driving offences

Author: James Watkins

Date: 26/09/2016

Driving while phoningMotorists who operate their mobile phones behind the wheel will soon face much stronger penalties when caught, as the government cracks down on those who allow their devices to distract them from the road.

Using a phone while driving will come with an automatic penalty of six points on your licence, doubling the previous penalty. On-the-spot fines have also been doubled from £100 to £200.

The sharp increase in penalties is intended to tackle the public’s lax attitude towards the notion of using a phone behind the wheel. A survey published earlier this month suggested that handheld mobile phone usage behind the wheel had quadrupled since 2014, with almost a third of drivers surveyed admitting to having used their phone while driving.

There is evidence to suggest that using a mobile phone can impair a driver as much as being over the limit for alcohol – however, it does not carry the same stigma as driving drunk.

“It is similar to habits lost in the 70s and 80s with drink-driving and seatbelts,” said Edmund King from the AA. “Only a shift in attitude, harsher penalties and better enforcement will improve matters.”

The 6 point penalty is particularly significant for new drivers, as any driver who accumulates this many points in the first two years of having their licence is banned from driving and forced to retake their test.

Added Edmund King: “If we are to change the attitudes of young drivers, maybe it has to be that harsh.”

The change is set to come into effect early next year.

Catching offenders

Despite the good intentions of this change, harsher penalties are unlikely to be very effective if police are unable to enforce them.

It may seem harmless replying to a text, answering a call or using an app, but the truth is your actions could kill and cause untold misery. We all have our part to play in ensuring our family and friends do not use their phones while driving.

Chris Grayling, Transport Minister

Data from the Ministry of Justice shows that prosecutions for using a mobile phone behind the wheel fell by half between 2010 and 2015, as did the number of convictions.

This has been put down to the falling numbers of police officers on our roads, contributing to the assumption in many motorists’ minds that they are unlikely to be punished for using the phone while driving.

"Unfortunately, with fewer officers out on the roads, more of these offences are going undetected,” said Jayne Willetts from the Police Federation of England and Wales.

How do you define mobile phone usage?

The law against driving while using a mobile phone is primarily intended to stop drivers talking, texting or checking their Facebook pages while their car is on the move, as this kind of distraction can (and often does) lead to accidents and tragic consequences.

However, the law goes further than this. Any mobile phone use while you are behind the wheel and the engine is switched on is illegal, even if the car isn’t actually moving at the time. If you are sat in traffic and you pick up your phone to look at the time, you could be in trouble if a police officer spots you, even if you put it down again without doing anything.

Using your phone is also illegal if you are supervising someone who is learning to drive.

The only exception occurs if you are using a phone hands-free; talking to someone on speakerphone is still legal if you are not actually holding the device. However, you should still exercise caution, as this is not necessarily as safe as you might think.

Could hands-free phones be banned next?

Alice Husband, whose 7-year-old son Seth was killed by a driver, this week called for a ban on the use of hands-free phones while driving. The driver of the car which hit her son was talking on speakerphone at the time.

“There are an awful lot of people who talk on speakerphone and believe it is acceptable, which is scary,” she said. “We know we should not be making mobile phone calls if you are not using hands-free. But because the technology is there, the general opinion is that hands-free kits are safe.”

Talking over the phone hands-free has long been considered to be safer, as it seems like it would be just the same as holding a conversation with someone sat in the car.

However, there is evidence to show that speaking over the phone is always a greater distraction than talking to someone in your presence, regardless of whether you are holding a device or not.

A passenger is less likely to distract the driver at crucial moments, as they can see what is happening on the road and stop talking when the driver needs to concentrate.

"We need one clear law,” says Alice Bailey from Brake, a road safety charity. “All phones, hand-held and hands-free, need to be banned in cars; the only safe phone is one that is switched off. How important is any phone conversation that lives are lost?”

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