Road Safety Bill

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Mr. Chope: What the Minister said contains, as one would expect, a lot of common sense. One expects that from people who used to serve on Wandsworth council, as she did. However, I am not sure that the common sense she has articulated is shared by all the cycling fraternity. There seems to be a feeling—reflected in some of the press comment when we let it be known that we would be tabling the amendment—that they are not doing anything wrong when cycling and using a mobile phone. The point that the hon. Lady makes is that by that sort of behaviour they are more likely to cause injury to themselves than to other road users, but surely the same argument applies to seatbelt laws. Adults who fail to put on seatbelts are normally jeopardising their own safety, rather than the safety of others. We have a responsibility as a legislature to ensure that there are laws that result in a reduction in the number of injuries and fatalities on our roads.

The Minister has not explained why she believes that there should be a specific offence of driving while using a mobile phone that carries a mandatory endorsement for motorists, but no specific offence of cycling while using a mobile phone. I do not understand the comparison. Driving while using a mobile phone is a serious issue, and the Government are addressing that with a specific penalty, although one could say that it is only one of a type of behaviour that incorporates not taking proper care of one's own safety while travelling on the road. However, exactly the same principles surely apply to cyclists. Either it is wrong that both cyclists and drivers should have that particular offence specified as an example and used against them, or it is right that we should single out that offence as an example because it is so widespread; probably more widespread than eating apples at the wheel. One can see that there may be an argument for a specific offence, but surely that argument applies just as much to cyclists as it does to drivers.

I am not convinced by the Minister's argument that, because the consequence of that behaviour is likely to result only in damage to the cyclist, rather than other road users, it is less unacceptable. She said that there is no evidence that cyclists cause accidents while using mobile phones. I have anecdotal evidence from my constituency that people feel intimidated by cyclists who are using pavements and mobile phones at the same time. If the police were going to give cyclists a fixed penalty, it would be much easier if they had a specific offence with which they could charge the cyclist, rather than having to go to enormous expense, perhaps using helicopters, to establish that the cyclist was causing a danger to themselves or others.

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I am not convinced, because the Minister has been, quietly, very robust in criticising the behaviour of cyclists who use mobile phones. The logic of that concern should be carried through with a change in the law.

Charlotte Atkins: The point is that there is no body of evidence to demonstrate that cyclists using mobile phones are creating a problem. There is a huge body of evidence to demonstrate that motorists, whatever vehicle they are driving, using mobile phones create problems and accidents. That is why the clause suggests that we should make such an offence endorseable. However, there is anecdotal comment about cyclists causing a problem because they are driving dangerously or carelessly. That may or may not be as the result of holding a mobile phone. Unfortunately, I probably have more complaints from people about cyclists going through red lights than about those using mobile phones. Careless or dangerous driving by cyclists is usually related to other offences such as jumping lights or cycling on pavements. Use of mobile phones by cyclists is not a big problem, because that would be very dangerous for the cyclist; much more so than other offences that they might commit. That is why I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Chope: I am grateful to the Minister for her response. Unfortunately, it is not consistent with what she said on 21 December. She said:

    ''I would argue that using a mobile phone while cycling demonstrates that the cyclist is not cycling safely.''—[Official Report, 21 December 2004; Vol. , c. 2048.]

She did not say that there was no evidence that there were unsafe consequences resulting from that behaviour. She seemed to accept that there were cyclists cycling while using mobile phones.

Charlotte Atkins: They can be prosecuted under sections 28 and 29 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

Mr. Chope: In exactly the same way, motorists who are using mobile phones can be prosecuted. There is a lot to be said for equivalence. There is a feeling among some road users about actions of the cycling fraternity, or at least some of them. I do not want to generalise or make people think that I am prejudiced against cyclists. That is not true, because I am a cyclist. The fact that, many years ago, a cyclist coming down a one-way street in the wrong direction hit my wife and her dog does not mean I have a longstanding resentment against all cyclists. On that occasion, the cycle touring club were generous enough to write us a letter, expressing sympathy over the behaviour of that cyclist.

However, I believe that it is important that all road users should recognise a degree of equivalence. There is nothing more annoying for a motorist than to see a cyclist with a mobile phone cycling along with impunity, when he knows that if he were to use a mobile phone, he would be slapped down with a fixed penalty and an endorsement. The argument for equivalence is a strong one, and I hope that other Committee members will support me.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—
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The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 13.

Division No. 5]

Chope, Mr. Christopher
Knight, Mr. Greg
Rosindell, Mr. Andrew
Wilshire, Mr. David

Atkins, Charlotte
Byrne, Mr. Liam
David, Mr. Wayne
Fisher, Mr. Mark
Heyes, Mr. David
Jamieson, Mr. David
Kidney, Mr. David
Mahmood, Mr. Khalid
Merron, Gillian
Reed, Mr. Andy
Stinchcombe, Mr. Paul
Thurso, John
Younger-Ross, Richard

Question accordingly negatived.

11.15 am

Mr. Chope: I beg to move amendment No. 15, in clause 22, page 25, line 23, at end insert

    'except in circumstances where a motor vehicle is stationary and the engine is switched off.'.

This is a common-sense amendment that will appeal to all members of the Committee. It makes clear that someone using a mobile phone in a stationary vehicle with the engine switched off would not be guilty of an offence. I am concerned that the present law, because of the wide definition of the expression ''driving'' in road traffic legislation, could mean that people who get stuck in long traffic jams, switch off their engines and communicate with others to inform them of the delay will, strictly speaking, be committing an offence.

The law is brought into disrepute if we allow offences to go on to the statute book that everyone realises are an absolute nonsense. The injustice is even greater where there is no power to mitigate the fixed penalties, as there is not for the proposed offence in question, which will result in a mandatory minimum three-point endorsement on a licence. I am sure the Government do not intend to penalise motorists who are stuck in traffic jams, but the way to ensure they do not do so is to amend the law now to ensure that that is apparent on the face of the statute. It is a simple point, and I hope the Government will be able to accept my reasonable amendment.

Charlotte Atkins: The amendment is unnecessary. I am not aware of any driver being prosecuted for the situation described by the hon. Member's amendment; namely, failing to have proper control of a vehicle when using a hand-held mobile phone if they are stationary with the engine switched off. In such a situation we do not need to be as prescriptive as the hon. Member suggests. In fact, if a motorist receives a phone call and wants to take it, we advise that they pull over to the side of the road, where it is safe, turn off the engine and return the call. The term ''driving'', to which the hon. Member referred, is used in much road traffic legislation without further definition.

It is appropriate for the courts to take into account the circumstances of the case when deciding if an offence has been committed, rather than us trying to set that out in legislation. For instance, if a traffic light went red as a motorist approached it and they
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momentarily turned off the engine, I would not consider that to be the right time to use a mobile phone. However, if someone is stuck in a five-mile tailback because of an accident on the motorway and all the vehicles around them are stationary with their engines turned off, clearly it is fine to use a mobile phone, because the motorist is not about to drive off. Ultimately, it is not for the Department to interpret the law. It must be for the police officer on the spot to decide whether an offence has been committed. If a driver wishes to contest that, he has the chance to do so in court. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment. It is not necessary and any sensible person would recognise that if the car is stationary and the engine is turned off, no offence will be committed.

John Thurso: I was minded not to support the amendment until I listened to the Minister. She has persuaded me of the opposite case. Rather than adding clarity to what I thought was a clear situation, obfuscation has crept in. She said that it would be quite wrong sitting at a red traffic light. On the A9 at Berriedale late last year, thanks to the good offices of my friend the Transport Minister in the Scottish Executive, some excellent roadworks were undertaken. However, that meant that one sat for 15 to 20 minutes, particularly late at night, waiting for the vehicles to go up and down. We all knew that and were all happy with it, because we knew the good results that we would get. Frankly, when there was a red light we all switched our engines off to conserve fuel, which is very expensive in the north, and might well have made a telephone call. That is a circumstance that is in direct contravention to the one that she put forward.

I would have thought that since the purpose of the legislation is to stop people driving inattentively, and hitting things while they are moving, if the engine is switched off that cannot happen and therefore the amendment might have some use after all.

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