Have We Gone Too Far With Using Phones While Driving?

Article by Philip Somarakis

A debate needs to be had over the continued use of mobile phones and other communicative devices when driving.

There are strong public interest grounds for making our roads safer, but on occasions over-zealous enforcement (‘Stunned driver fined for blowing his nose’) have undermined this message.

When it comes to banning handheld mobile phones whilst driving, there does not appear to be much opposition to this. The public has accepted that to drive whilst holding a handheld phone is wrong. One can rationalise this because it would involve removing one hand from the steering wheel. Surely that is the whole point of why phone calls in the car should be hands free?

Years ago, I was given a lift by a taxi driver who only had one hand. He was driving an automatic car and had the steering wheel adapted so that he could turn it the full 360 degrees. He was a perfectly safe driver. The act of driving requires not only the physical skill to do so (and my taxi driver had that), but it also requires the appropriate level of concentration.

It is being distracted from the task at hand that can lead to devastating consequences. There is a misconception amongst some members of the public that using a hands-free phone whilst driving is not only ‘legal’ but also ‘safe’.

This is simply not true. The University of Utah undertook a three year investigation into the effects on drivers of talking on mobile phones. The following headline said it all: ‘Drivers on Cell Phones Are as Bad as Drunks’. Talking on the phone affected 97.5% of all drivers tested. Moreover, what was startling was that there was no significant difference to the level of impairment when the call was ‘hands free’ rather than ‘hand held’.

Where bad driving occurs, the police will investigate and will seek advice from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) over appropriate charges. The official line from CPS is ‘The responses to our 2007 public consultation have shown how seriously society views the potential dangers of the use of mobile phones and other hand-held devices, while driving. In cases where the driver was avoidably and dangerously distracted by that use, a charge of dangerous driving will be the starting point for our charging decisions’.

It is important to note that this guidance is not just for handheld phone cases. In 2008Marvyn Richmond was jailed for four-and-a-half years for causing death by dangerous driving. He was using a hands-free telephone at the time but was so engrossed in a conversation that he failed to notice traffic ahead of him had come to a standstill, and ploughed into the back of the queue, killing a passenger in a van.

During his summing up to the jury, the judge said the fact that Mr Richmond probably had both hands on the wheel did not alter the fact that he was severely distracted by talking on his Bluetooth headset.

It is not alleged that to use a hands-free mobile phone is per se illegal. It is not but your attention must be focused on driving, just as it should be if you have the radio on or you have a Sat Nav or you have passengers in your vehicle.

A Fleet News poll following the 2009 TRL research revealed 45% of fleets had banned their drivers from using hands-free phones. So, whilst attitudes are changing, more needs to be done to debate the need even for hands-free calls at all.

About the Author

This article was written by Philip Somarakis, a member of the motoring offences team at Blake Lapthorn.

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