The Government is being urged to consider banning the use of hands-free mobile phones while driving, by a group of MPs.
In its Road safety: driving while using a mobile phone report, released today, the Transport Committee says the evidence is clear: “using a mobile phone while driving is dangerous, with potentially catastrophic consequences”.
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 committee is also calling for tougher penalties and, as evidence shows that using a hands-free device creates the same risks of crashing, it is recommending the ban on hand-held devices should be extended to hands-free phones.
It is calling for the Government to overhaul current laws on using mobile devices while driving to cover use irrespective of whether this involves sending or receiving data.
The call – which coincidentally came the week after a senior police officer escaped a driving ban after crashing into a car while trying to make a hands-free phone call - has been backed by several road safety organisations including Brake and IAM.
Lilian Greenwood, chairman of the Transport Committee, 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.”
The report says the number of people killed or injured in road collisions in which a driver using a mobile phone was a contributory factor has risen steadily since 2011, but the rate of enforcement has dropped by more than two-thirds.
As a result, the Transport Committee is also calling on the Government to work with police to boost enforcement and make better use of technology.
The penalties for using a hand-held mobile while behind the wheel were increased in 2017 to a maximum of six points on their licence and a £200 fine, but the report says they still do not appear to be commensurate with the risk created, and should be reviewed and potentially increased.
Road safety group reaction
Joshua Harris, director of campaigns for Brake, said: “We welcome the calls from MPs in the Transport Committee to tackle the dangers of phone use behind the wheel.
“Using a phone while 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.
“We echo MPs’ call for the Government to work with the police to boost enforcement and ensure there is a true deterrent to the menace of mobile phone use behind the wheel.”
Neil Greig, IAM RoadSmart director of policy and research, added: “IAM RoadSmart strongly welcomes the House of Commons Transport Committee 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.
“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 be 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 final piece in the jigsaw for IAM RoadSmart would be a revamping of the mobile phone awareness course with every first offender being sent on one to see and feel the real impact of their behaviour.”
He continued: “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.”
IAM RoadSmart also called for the greater use of education campaigns to ensure drivers are aware of the risks of a hands-free call.
Shaun Helman, chief scientist for TRL, said: “A debate about hands-free and hand-held phone use is welcome, but if we want to improve road safety and stop killing people it completely misses the point
“This morning’s Transport Committee 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 let’s deal with some basic facts, which the report accepts. You cannot drive and do another task at the same time without your driving, and the other task for that matter, suffering.
“Experimental psychologists have known this for decades.
“TRL research published in 2002, using our driving simulator also showed quite clearly that the accuracy and speed of drivers’ responses to sudden events on the road ahead were adversely affected by conversation-like tasks, and that crucially it didn’t matter if the conversation was hands-free, or on a hand-held phone.
“While this finding has been important in defining the issue ever since, it is these phrases – ‘hands-free’ and ‘hand-held’ – that mislead us.
“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.
“The TRL research and others have shown that this is certainly not the case; there are many types of distraction (the other two main ones being visual – where you are looking, and cognitive – what you are thinking about).
“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.
“And other types of distraction tend to be present when manipulating (not just holding) a device; looking at the device (and therefore not at the road), thinking about what one is writing, what someone is saying on social media, or which song to choose next. All of this has been shown (in TRL research and elsewhere) to distract drivers.
“The Transport Select Committee report mentions ‘hands-free’ or ‘hand-held’ (or both) in every one of its recommendations.
“But this language frames the issue in completely the wrong way. I’d like to suggest an alternative framing, which can move us forward in educating the next generation of drivers.
“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."
Paul Loughlin, motoring solicitor at the law firm Stephensons Solicitors LLP, said: “The use of mobile phones behind the wheel remains a persistent problem and for many, these proposals will be a welcome step forward.
“At the same time, however, the proposals also raise some questions, particularly around the ability of the police to enforce these laws. It’s much easier to spot a driver using a handheld device behind the wheel, than it would be for a driver using a hands-free device. It’s also not clear how the police would enforce this law with motorcyclists who use Bluetooth helmets, for instance.
“As the proposals now go to public consultation, I’d be very keen to see how these proposals develop."
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