HL Deb 19 May 1997 vol 580 cc138-9

3.2 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government

Whether they will consider making it an offence to use a telephone while driving a vehicle on a public road, whether the telephone is held in the hand or not.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for the Environment and Transport (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, I am urgently considering how best to tackle the hazards posed by driving while using a mobile telephone—whether hand held or hands free. Recent court cases show that the police can and do successfully prosecute the offences of dangerous driving, careless driving or failure to exercise proper control of a vehicle that may arise from the use of a mobile phone while driving.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, and congratulate her upon her debut today speaking as a Minister. I wish her all the best in her new role. Perhaps I should have addressed her not as "Minister" but by her Christian name so as to keep in line with the cosy informality now being encouraged by the Government. Is she aware that there are differing views among the safety and motoring organisations about accidents involving car phones, because those phones can be beneficial and needed, for example, by women driving on their own? Can an attempt be made to devise a code of practice?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for at least some of his comments. I am sure that the House would be interested in assessing any procedural innovations of the kind he suggested if he wished to make them. We have to balance the undoubted assistance that having a mobile phone in a car may be to passengers and drivers on their own against the danger that is constituted when people use that mobile phone when driving. The drawing up of a new Highway Code gives us an opportunity to strengthen its provisions. I have asked that the wording of Rule 43, which deals with this issue, be strengthened, and that will go out for consultation in the summer.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, perhaps I may join in the congratulations to the Minister on her new appointment to the transport portfolio. Does she feel that there is a danger of being over-prescriptive in this area, given that people such as airline pilots manage to land a sophisticated piece of equipment while talking on the radio and occasionally while talking to their colleagues? Does the Minister have an opinion as to what effect a tax on mobile phones may have on their use and consequent abuse?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for his welcome. In the past the danger has been caused by being under-prescriptive in terms of informing drivers of the hazards that can result from the distraction caused by the use of mobile phones. I in no way wish to legislate where it is unnecessary, but there is a great deal that we can do in terms of driver education through the mobile phone companies and our own agencies to encourage better practice in this area. Perhaps I may write to the noble Viscount about taxation.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Government could consult RoSPA, whose members represent a broad base of opinion on this subject? I declare an interest as RoSPA president.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, that would be helpful. I know that RoSPA has recently amended its own advice in this area. When we go out to consultation on the Highway Code I am sure that it will be one of the organisations to which we shall be speaking also about the wider areas where there may be opportunities for improvements.

Lord Winston

My Lords, perhaps I, too, may congratulate my noble friend on her appointment, which is welcome. Is there any clear evidence that using a hand-free mobile telephone or the many other activities, such as smoking a cigarette, which are carried out in a motor car are dangerous? It would be good to have some clear, hard evidence about that.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the evidence that came out in the New England Journal of Medicine based on the Canadian study casts doubt on the assumption that a hand-free phone is safer, and claims that it is the distraction as much as the manual operation which causes the danger. A variety of distractions may occur within a car. The driver's overall responsibility is to remain in control. On the gathering of information, I have asked that in future when the police are recording accident causation data they will include whether a mobile phone was implicated.