HL Deb 26 July 2000 vol 616 cc557-62

(" .—(1) In the Road Traffic Act 1988, before section 4 insert—

"Driving while using a hand-held mobile telephone.

3B. If a person drives a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place while making, receiving or conducting a telephone call using a hand-held mobile telephone he is guilty of an offence."

(2) In Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 (prosecution and punishment of offenders), before the entry relating to section 4(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 insert—

"RTA section 3B Driving while using a hand- held mobile telephone. Summarily. Level 4 on the standard scale. Discretionary. Obligatory. 3–9".")

The noble Baroness said: This amendment is grouped with Amendment No. 413, to which the noble Lord did not speak. Amendment No. 418 inserts a new clause into the Bill to amend the Road Traffic Act 1988, thus creating a new offence of driving while making, receiving or conducting a telephone call using a hand-held mobile telephone. It also modifies the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 by providing a fine up to level 4 on the standard scale.

We have discussed this matter more than once. A year ago this month the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, who is in his seat, introduced his Road Traffic (Use of Mobile Telephones) Bill, which this new clause follows. He was supported by a considerable number of noble Lords. In particular, the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, introduced the results of a good deal of relevant research which clearly indicated the effect on the safety of a driver who uses a hand-held telephone while driving.

On 6th July of this year the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, drew attention to the evidence of the Stewart report. Other evidence from Canada was also adduced to indicate that drivers using hand-held phones while driving were four times more likely than others to be involved in an accident. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, agreed with the findings of the Stewart report that the use of hand-held telephones could substantially increase the risk of an accident. He also said that it was an increasing phenomenon and that if the use of mobile telephones by drivers while driving continued to increase the Government would review the case for specific legislation.

I do not claim that my approach to amending the Bill is the best; I am prepared to be told that it is far from adequate. However, in this case there is a good deal to be said for giving the Government the powers that they admit they may need in future. My amendment could be redrafted to suit that approach. I hope that, following the ritual exposé of the faults of this amendment, the Minister may yet say that in another form it will prove useful. I beg to move.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

I have very few of my own teeth left in my head. I have lost my teeth in batches over the years. The second batch was lost when I was reading a book while riding a bicycle along a Norfolk road and impinged on a stationary van. I tell that anecdote because it has a bearing on the apparent self-confidence of people who use a telephone while driving a car, which is becoming a common practice. I have relatives in America where that phenomenon is even more common. Like a number of other practices in that country, I believe that we are likely to follow that example. It is not safe to use a telephone while driving a car any more than it was safe to read while riding a bicycle.

I do hope that the Government will take this amendment on board or, if they do not accept it, produce something of their own.

11.15 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I have two speeches to make on mobile phones. One speech lasts for three and a half hours and the other for three and a half minutes. It is the latter which I intend to deploy at this late stage of the evening.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for her reference to the efforts I made last year with regard to a Bill in this House. As she rightly said, matters have moved on in terms of the Stewart report and its very substantial evidence of the abuse of road safety implicit in people seeking to make or receive telephone calls while driving a car.

I declare my interest as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents which has campaigned on this issue for some time. At this stage I state the obvious: last year we were treated to considerable police action to demonstrate that this matter could be dealt with under existing law and that that would act as a deterrent to people and establish the fact that this was a practice which ought not to be pursued by drivers. I was grateful for that response, as I am sure all Members in the House were. If it was thought that this would reduce the use of mobile phones by drivers, I am sure the Minister must recognise that it did not have that effect.

The issue, of course, is quite straightforward. Even if people learn at a sufficient rate of the dangers of such a practice, the number of mobile phones being purchased is growing at such an extraordinary rate that their use on the roads is almost certainly increasing rather than decreasing.

The necessity for legislation has parallels with what happened over seat belts. Sensible people knew that the wearing of seat belts was a safety aid. But it was not until it became the law of the land that seat belts were universally used and the law largely complied with. I think the same obtains with regard to mobile phones.

I recognise the reservations of the Minister. There may be imperfections, as the noble Baroness was kind enough to recognise, as regards her proposal. But she is to be congratulated on reintroducing the issue at this stage of the Bill. I would emphasise that something needs to be done in legislative terms, and soon.

Viscount Simon

Most people say that the police have sufficient powers regarding the use of mobile phones in a moving vehicle. Police officers say they would much prefer a specific offence and that is what the noble Baroness, I believe, is trying to achieve.

It appears to me that she has not made clear in her amendment something I believe she intends; namely, that it is when the vehicle is actually moving that the driver commits an offence and not when it is stationary.

Finally, something which has to be borne in mind, whether the mobile phone is hand held or not, is that the concentration of the driver can be adversely affected for up to 10 minutes after conversation has ceased.

Earl Attlee

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for introducing this important amendment. I see some problems about the use of a hand held telephone when the vehicle is mobile. I agree it would be desirable to create a specific offence so that motorists knew that they were going to get into trouble if they used their hand held phone while the vehicle was in motion.

Lord Winston

I cannot help intervening briefly, having visited the Transport Research Laboratory this afternoon. Whatever legislation we enact, we must ensure that there is good evidence for doing so. One of the questions we must ask before legislating is the extent to which using a hand-held telephone, with or without hands free, contributes to accidents. My impression was that the answer is not entirely clear but perhaps I am wrong. I hope that the Government will pursue the question because it is important.

Lord Whitty

As my noble friend will know from his visit to the TRL, the issue is being assessed in various research projects in order to ascertain the statistical contribution of mobile telephones to road accidents. Many accident reports indicate that the problem is growing but because it is relatively recent it is not easy to establish the precise statistical base.

The view of the police is that they do not need the additional power because the act is already covered by general offences relating to undue attention or careless driving. The specification of a particular offence could have two downsides.

Viscount Simon

Is the opinion of the police at ACPO level or officers on the street? The officers on the street would like to see legislation.

Lord Whitty

My noble friend may have conducted an opinion poll, but it is the view of chief police officers. It is also the view of various operational people within the police traffic area. I have no doubt that some police would like to see offences for all kinds of acts, but, in general, police representatives have said that the provision would not be sensible because there are two downsides. The first is that specifying the mobile telephone would take away attention from other distractions such as combing your hair, eating a sandwich and so forth within a car. I leave the rest to Members' imagination. It is therefore a no more serious offence than other ways of being distracted within the car.

Secondly, the only type of mobile telephone which would cause the police to stop a car would be handheld because a hands-free telephone could not be seen. Research shows that the level of distraction when using either is almost the same. Therefore, specifying that a hand-held telephone could lead to police action, even if there were not an accident or driving offence, would undermine the message that hands-free telephones can also cause considerable distraction for drivers. Significant research, mainly that carried out in America, suggests that.

We have said that if that proves not to be the case we will review the situation. If it remains the case, I assure the House that were it to be proved from accident statistics or police reports that current powers are insufficient to deal with the problem, when we are examining penalties and offences we shall consider bringing it forward as a separate offence. However, at this point we are not convinced of the necessity for that, nor are representatives of the police.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

I thank the Minister for that response. Before withdrawing my amendment I want to comment on some of the interventions. I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, who made it clear that ACPO is arguing against the need for a specific offence. One should not forget that road traffic accidents are a low priority in police work. One may argue about whether that is desirable but it is the case. Therefore, one can understand why the most senior police officers might be reluctant to have to introduce new duties in an area which is already under-resourced.

I was interested to hear the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Winston. I believe that research is now becoming more and more specific in indicating that there is a connection between accidents and the use of a mobile phone while driving—that is, while the vehicle is moving. That is what the amendment says. It refers clearly to a person driving a vehicle and it assumes that the vehicle is moving. However, there is certainly a connection between driving a vehicle, using a phone and being accident-prone while doing so.

I shall respond briefly to the Minister. I agree with him that it would be more desirable if all use of a mobile phone by a driver of a moving vehicle were prohibited by law. However, I do not believe that I would get that past his eagle eye because there is a divergence of opinion as to whether or not using a mobile phone which is hitched on to the car—that is, it is not hand-held—is as dangerous as using it while it is in one's hand. Therefore, I went for the more obvious of the two targets.

I am sorry that the Minister does not believe that the amendment will be of use to him in his considerations of how our attitudes and the law should progress with regard to this problem. I consider that it is a problem that is increasingly likely to become a nuisance in the years to come. However, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bradshaw moved Amendment No. 419:

After Clause 257, insert the following new clause—