The controversy regarding the use of mobile phones when behind the wheel has entered a new phase with a report published today by the Commons Transport Select Committee stating that use of a hands free option, currently permissible, presented "the same risk of collision", something that will doubtless be disputed by many, including many HGV and van delivery drivers who use the devices routinely in the course of their daily work.
Use of a handheld telephone or other device has been illegal in the UK for sixteen years and in March 2017 penalties for the offence rose to a fine of £200 and a six point penalty on the driver’s licence. The transport safety charity Brake has long advocated a complete ban on texting and telephone calls claiming studies show 62% of survey respondents acknowledge that the use of mobile phones whilst driving, including hands-free kits, is dangerous.
In May the National Travel Attitudes Survey, published by the Department for Transport, showed 25% of those questioned felt it was safe to use a mobile phone when in a stationary vehicle, something which astonished director of campaigns for Brake, Joshua Harris, who commented:
"Using a phone when behind the wheel can impair you as much as driving drunk so it’s a real concern that one in four people think it’s safe to use their phone when behind the wheel in stationary traffic. [Using a hands-free phone] can impair a driver in the same way as a hand-held device and so it makes sense that the law treats these acts equally. One moment's distraction from a phone can cause a lifetime of suffering so our advice to drivers is simple, when you're driving, make sure your phone is on silent and placed out of sight and out of reach."
Labour Member of Parliament, Lilian Greenwood, who chairs the Commons Transport Select Committee said that any use of a phone distracts from a driver's ability to pay full attention to the road. The cross party group said that a public consultation on the proposal to ban hands-free sets should be published by the end of this year. Any decision which arises from it will only be applicable in England and Wales as it is a matter for the devolved government in Scotland.
The proposals brought an immediate retort from the Road Haulage Association (RHA) which pronounced the suggestion as extremely concerning for the transport industry. Commenting, RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said:
"For years we have condemned the use of hand-held devices but for truckers, it is essential that they are able to be contacted and can make contact with their base or their customers. We totally agree that drivers should not touch their phone while driving, put it in the glove box and forget it. But voice-activated devices, as fitted in the majority of vehicles, make communication safe and viable."
"Ours is an industry that is time critical and the ever increasing levels of congestion on the road network mean that communication is more important than ever. It’s vital that the driver can stay in touch. The vast majority of UK manufacturing plants now rely on just-in-time deliveries. Taking away the ability for drivers to keep in touch could seriously effect of production times."
"Once regarded as a luxury, a hands-free kit is now standard equipment in vehicles. If such a ban were to be put in place, how would it be enforced? This is a proposal that needs extremely careful consideration and it is vital that the RHA is included in any consultation."