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Transport: Mobile Telephones

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 14 January 2010


Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce the use of hand-held mobile telephones by drivers, in the light of the report by the Transport Research Laboratory indicating that the practice is on the increase.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Tenby, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, using a mobile phone while driving became an offence in 2003 and the penalties were increased in 2007 to the same level as for speeding. For the first two years since then, surveys have shown a remarkable 35 per cent reduction in the observed use of mobile phones by drivers. Figures showing an increase in the past year apply to London only; but they are clearly a cause of concern, and I have asked that further measures be considered as part of the forthcoming road safety strategy for the next 10 years.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Would he agree that a change of attitude among drivers is needed, similar to the one that has made drink-driving socially unacceptable? With that in mind, would the Government consider mounting another advertising campaign similar to the helpful one some years ago on the theme of, “Think! Switch it off before you drive”, or exploring ways of ensuring that employers actively seek to prevent the use of mobile phones—whether hand-held or hands-free—while driving by their employees, to whom they may have provided both the phone and the vehicle?

My Lords, all of the noble Lord’s points are well made. There have been two “Think” campaigns specifically directed at the use of mobile phones by drivers. A number of employers have policies that specifically prohibit their employees from using their mobile phones while on the road—although, of course, it is the responsibility of individual motorists to ensure that they do not use hand-held mobile phones while driving.

As for changes in public attitude, there has been a very significant change in practice. Before the 2007 change in the law, research by the Transport Research Laboratory estimated that 1.7 per cent of those drivers whom they were observing were using hand-held mobile phones. The last national figures we have show that 1.1 per cent were using hand-held mobile phones. So there has been a very significant reduction, but of course that is not a big enough reduction, and we need to be prepared to consider all measures, including renewed advertising campaigns, to bring the figure down further.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us how many fatal and how many serious accidents there have been involving the use of mobile phones, as we read alarmingly about them in the press all the time?

My Lords, I am afraid that we do not gather statistics on that basis, but there has been a very significant fall in the number of those killed and seriously injured on the roads. The latest data for 2008 were that there were 2,538 deaths on the roads. That compared with an average between 1994 and 1998 of 3,578, so there has been a 29 per cent decrease overall, but we do not have the figure specifically in respect of accidents caused by drivers being on mobile phones.

Building on what the noble Baroness said, in the forthcoming road safety review, will the Minister consider that when an accident is shown to be caused or contributed to by somebody using a mobile phone, that offence should be considered as dangerous driving, rather than careless driving?

My Lords, it is entirely up to the police what offences they choose to prosecute for. They can, of course, prosecute for either of those offences.

Can my noble friend tell the House whether the level of compliance has met the standard that the department expected when it legislated? Secondly, can he tell us whether he thinks the public believe that the legislation is working?

My Lords, we expected to see a significant reduction in the number of drivers using hand-held mobile phones. The evidence is that we have seen such a reduction, but we cannot be satisfied with the fact that there are still significant numbers of drivers using hand-held mobile phones. Public attitudes are changing. I believe that, as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said at the beginning, people are coming to see using mobile phones while driving as being in the same category as drink-driving. As we get public attitudes changing, we will be able to bear down on it more successfully.

My Lords, would the Secretary of State tell us the means of enforcement for hand-held mobile phone offences? Is it just left to the police to go off on a motor bicycle after them? How does the enforcement take place?

My Lords, it is the responsibility of the police, but the big change in the law in 2007 was to bring in not only a £60 fine—doubling the previous £30 fine—but, crucially, to treat the offence in the same way as speeding so placing three points on the licence. Three points on the licence appears to have had a big impact on the attitude of motorists. When it comes to reviewing the progress of the legislation, I am certainly prepared to consider whether the three points should be increased in future.

In the investigation of serious and fatal accidents, has any consideration been given to communicating with the mobile phone companies, which should be able to track from where masts have been used for calls whether a person was on the phone at the time of the accident? Then it would not be very difficult to see whether the car had been fitted with a hands-free set.

My Lords, when accidents occur, the police assess all the available information and evidence about the causes. That includes the use of mobile phones.

My Lords, in order to resolve this problem, is there any possibility of getting car manufacturers to put some sort of microchip in all vehicles so that phones cannot be used when the engine is switched on, except when phoning the emergency services?

That idea has not been put to me before. There is the issue of hands-free mobile phones, which it is not illegal to use. I am not quite sure how my noble friend’s suggestion would be compatible with that perfectly legal means of using a mobile phone in a car.

Can the Minister remind the House whether it is illegal to use a mobile telephone while stuck in a long traffic jam?

It is. Provided you are in the car and it is on the public highway, you are not allowed to use it.

Can the Minister tell us whether any progress has been made on the suggestion made many years ago in this House that all new-build cars should have the ability to have a hands-free phone? I have been told that there will be similar contact points for all mobile phones, no matter what sort they are, and the same charger will charge all mobile phones. If we could get that into all new-build cars, at least people who need the security and safety of having a mobile phone available, particularly in rural areas or when driving late at night—I recommend that all women should have them in cars—would have no temptation to have the mobile phone in their hand.

It is fairly simple and straightforward to install a hands-free mobile phone in a car, so I am not immediately persuaded that it is the duty of Her Majesty's Government to start insisting on mandatory arrangements. However, I will bear in mind what the noble Baroness said.

My Lords, following on from the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, will my noble friend ask the police whether they are using that material as evidence?

My Lords, they take appropriate account of all evidence when deciding on prosecutions following accidents.