FLEETS have just over two months to prepare for a new law which will ban the use of hand-held mobile phones and could land managers in court if they are not prepared.
Employers have been warned they must take responsibility for ensuring drivers on business obey laws banning the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving when they come into force in December.
But Fleet News' research after plans for the ban were announced revealed that one third of fleets have no formal policy on the use of mobile phones while their employees are driving on business.
When asked 'Has your fleet got a written policy banning the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving?', just 67% of fleets could say yes.
In a letter to industry leaders who took part in consultation on the new legislation, Sue Faulkner, of the Road Safety Division at the Department for Transport, has provided an explanation of the key areas of focus for the new law and what role employers can play. Although employers cannot be held entirely responsible if drivers persist in using phones, they can be prosecuted if they 'cause and permit' the use of phones.
So, if they refused to give drivers hands-free kits, but insisted that they answer the phone while driving, they could be liable to prosecution. Industry experts have warned that the legislation means companies will have to introduce major changes to their operating procedures and Government ministers have already spent months trying to educate the industry about the danger of mobile phone use while driving.
Insurer Direct Line commissioned research by the Transport Research Laboratory last year to gauge the effect of using a mobile phone while driving.
The results show that drivers' reaction times are on average 30% slower when using a hand-held mobile than when driving with excess alcohol, and nearly 50% slower than under normal driving conditions.
In the tests, drivers using mobiles were less able to maintain a constant speed and found it more difficult to keep a safe distance from the car in front. With a hand-held phone, drivers took half a second longer than normal to react, compared to when they were drunk – equivalent to an extra 46 feet at 70mph before reacting to a hazard on the road.
Also, drivers using either hands-free or hand-held mobiles missed more road warning signs than when drunk.
Here we provide a summary of what the legislation means to fleets.
How the legislation will work
Following consultation, the Department for Transport is going ahead with revised proposals based on a consultation document that was sent out last year. Here are the key areas:
The new offence will carry a fixed penalty of £30 and three penalty points, or a fine on conviction of up to £1,000 (£2,500 for drivers of goods vehicles or those manufactured or adapted to carry nine or more passengers).
Drivers should not use hand-held phones while at traffic lights or during short hold-ups that may occur during a typical journey. However, the Government accepts that it is unnecessary for a vehicle to be parked with the engine switched off in order to avoid prosecution.
The new offence will apply to all mechanically-propelled vehicles, including motorbikes. Cyclists will not be covered by the new law.
The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 already make it an offence to 'cause or permit' the law-breaking to take place. Regulation 104 makes it an offence for a person to drive a motor vehicle if he or she cannot have proper control of the vehicle. Anyone 'causing or permitting' a driver not to have proper control, such as an employer requiring an employee to drive a vehicle which they cannot properly control, is also liable for prosecution.
For mobile phones, employers will not be liable solely because they have supplied a telephone or because they called an employee who was driving at the time. However, employers will continue to be liable if they require employees to commit an offence.
Those who are in control of a vehicle include those accompanying learner drivers. The new regulations will be drafted accordingly.
The Government's aim is to prohibit the type of activity rather than try to define different devices. The offence will therefore apply to drivers speaking or listening to a phone call, using a device interactively for accessing any sort of data, which would include the internet, sending or receiving text messages or other images, if it is held in the driver's hand during at least part of the period of its operation.
The Government will not ban carrying of hand-held phones in vehicles or require them to be switched off. Pushing buttons on a phone while it is in a cradle or if it is being operated via buttons on the steering wheel or handlebars of a motorbike would not breach the new regulation.
The Department for Transport considers that drivers should not use hands-free phones while driving, but it is not proposed to include these within the scope of the new regulation due to enforcement difficulties. Hands-free phones will not be prohibited unless they are being held during use.
There are many types of hand-held electronic devices that can be used in a similar way to a phone to text, receive and record messages, access the internet or data held within the device, or have dual or multi-functions. To avoid loopholes, holding any electronic device used for accessing oral, textual or pictorial communications will also be prohibited, provided that the device must be held at some point during the course of its operation.
There are few exemptions, even for emergency services. Two-way 'press to talk' radio microphones will be permitted. However, the only acceptable use of a hand-held mobile phone while driving is when making a 999 call for a genuine emergency, if is unsafe for a driver to stop.
The new regulation will now be prepared and laid before Parliament as soon as possible. A regulatory impact assessment will be published at that time. The new offence will be brought into effect from December 1, 2003.
'Prepare now or face the consequences'
INDUSTRY leaders have urged fleets to start preparing now for the introduction of a ban on the use of hand-held mobile phones in December.
Although Parliament has to vote on the legislation before it can become law, it is widely expected to be passed with little change because of public support.
The decision follows a consultation, 'Mobile phones and driving – proposal for an offence of using a hand-held mobile phone while driving', which began in August last year. Comments were requested by November 25, 2002, and more than 1,000 responses were received. Some 88% were broadly in favour of the introduction of a new offence.
Road Safety Minister David Jamieson said: 'Driving while using a mobile phone is dangerous. We are all too familiar with the sight of people driving along while holding and talking on their mobile phones.
'Any driver will be distracted by a phone call or text message. It affects the ability to concentrate and anticipate the road ahead, putting the driver and other road users at risk. Our decision to introduce this new offence will make the roads safer for us all. Missing a call won't kill you – an accident quite possibly could.'
Research has demonstrated that if drivers use a mobile phone on the move, they are four times more likely to have an accident.
Hands-free calls are also distracting and Jamieson stressed that drivers should be aware they still risk prosecution for failing to have proper control of their vehicle, for careless or reckless driving if use of a phone affects their driving.
A report, called 'The risk of using a mobile phone while driving', was commissioned by the Department for Transport from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and published last year. It summarises the information available on mobile phones and driving and is available online at www.rospa.com/pdfs/road/mobiles/report.pdf
'Loneliness of the long-distance fleet driver'
ONE of Britain's biggest food companies has saved more than £100,000 a year and improved fleet driver safety by controlling the use of mobile phones among 'lonely' company car drivers. The firm, which does not want to be named, slashed £128,000 a year from its mobile phone bill following a safety audit to identify areas where drivers were at risk.
The 60% fall in phone use among company car users, part of a new best practice scheme, was achieved after two years of steady increases in phone bills, from an average of £125 per person a month to £280 over two years, as drivers increasingly used phones at the wheel.
Risk management firm Risk Answers identified two key problems as part of a safety audit. The first was 'lonely' drivers, ringing friends and family while on the move to relieve boredom on long journeys.
Jeremy Hay, sales director of Risk Answers, said: 'Staff were using the phone 10% of the time for personal use.
'They were also talking to various office-based colleagues and fellow car-driving employees in a bid to answer customer queries as quickly as possible. 'This was partly due to poor in-office call-handling procedures, but it was also due to inefficient sales territory planning.
'By improving all these factors as part of a major safety audit and demonstrating why a comprehensive mobile phone policy should be adopted by every company, we have helped our client slash its mobile phone bills by thousands of pounds. In addition the company is now promoting best practice.'
The policy is also expected to improve safety for drivers, as research has repeatedly shown that driving while using a mobile phone, hand-held or hands-free, can lead to errors and cause crashes.