Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: I remind the Committee that I am the president of RoSPA. I rise to support all that has been said by other members of the Committee. RoSPA's position is relatively simple: all these devices are extremely distracting. It believes firmly, as I do, that the use of any kind of mobile phone or such instrument should not be supported, whether one is in a vehicle or on a vehicle—as in the case of a cycle. I hope that my noble friend, who knows RoSPA as well as I do, will listen to the arguments.

Lord Davies of Oldham: In response to the last point made by my noble friend, while I may know RoSPA as well as she does, I am not kept as up to date. I am grateful for her reference to the support being offered by RoSPA to her contributions. I am all too well aware that the use of mobile phones while driving causes a great deal of interest among noble Lords. Indeed, in days past I was partly responsible for helping to stimulate that interest, so it is only proper that I should now respond to the challenging arguments now being put forward. The debate has moved on and obvious anxieties are being expressed about the use of hands-free devices.

I want to make it clear that I agree with all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate that it is dangerous to drive unless concentrating fully on that task and that it is difficult, if not impossible, to concentrate fully while also dealing with a telephone. In supporting these amendments, noble Lords have indicated that they are aware of the distinction we feel obliged to draw between mobile phones which can be banned because it is possible to enforce a ban—their use can be observed—and those whose use cannot be observed. It is not clear that the user is actually employing the telephone while driving and that difficulty persists.

I hear the argument that after an accident it may be possible to identify that a mobile phone has been used. Under the present circumstances, an offence is committed if a driver is not fully attentive when driving the vehicle. If he then causes an accident and the police are able to testify that a mobile phone was being used at the time, such testimony will not add much to the credit of the driver when it comes to apportioning blame for the accident. In that sense, the use of a mobile phone while driving will be taken into account and drivers should be aware that we regard the use of all forms of telephone equipment in cars, handheld or not, as posing a potential hazard.

However, we are obliged to give the police a proper role in law enforcement. As the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, put it so graphically—I could not express it better—there is a difference between effective law enforcement and the commission of this form of offence. So I endorse all that he said and I am only too happy to go on the record to the effect that the
17 Oct 2005 : Column 604
Government do not regard the use of a telephone while driving a car as sound, safe and sensible behaviour. People take risks when they do it and it could be that their position will be affected very adversely if they are involved in an accident—even if they were not using the type of telephone equipment we have sought to ban. I want to make that point clear.

Another aspect of this issue concerns pedal cyclists. I am aware that cyclists can occasion a certain amount of discomfort for other road users. While cyclists often say that they have to flee from dangerous motorists, they themselves become the hazard faced by pedestrians, who also have rights to road space. We are concerned to enforce the law where it is appropriate to do so; that is, when cyclists behave in a dangerous manner. Moreover, let me remind the Committee that the penalty for careless cycling is a maximum fine of £1,000, while that for dangerous cycling is £2,500. If anyone is under the illusion that it is possible to cycle with no respect for the law and that there are no condign punishments consequent on actions which may be dangerous to other road users, I can assure them that that is just not the case. The police are able to charge people appropriately and the maximum penalties can apply. So we maintain that the police have adequate powers to deal with those whom they consider to be cycling dangerously or carelessly, and I think it will be recognised that it is easier to observe cyclists badly misbehaving on the road than it is others. For all sorts of reasons, it is also easier to effect an arrest. Lastly, there is greater public pressure on cyclists simply because they are closer to people who may be able to do something about their behaviour, or at least to demonstrate their concern. It is more difficult with driving because we all have the prime objective of staying safe.

I hear what my noble friend Lord Berkeley has said about his experience with using a particular hands-free device while cycling. He has obviously road-tested it and found it to be entirely unsatisfactory. I am not surprised about that. All sorts of devices are used by cyclists to keep themselves entertained while negotiating difficult traffic conditions. All I can say is that they scarcely aid their personal safety. However, most of the equipment is pretty visible, and if the police think that a cyclist is posing a danger to other road users—or even to him or herself—they can take action. We are also mindful of the fact that we do not want unnecessarily to clutter the statute book with an extensive range of offences. We think that we have the issue of cycling under control, although noble Lords may respond by saying that they are conscious that over recent years cycling behaviour has somewhat deteriorated. That may or may not be the case and I have not seen any figures which attest to that opinion, but I have heard plenty of anecdotal evidence, as I am sure we all do. Bad cycling behaviour is very overt and we believe that the offences in place on the statute book are adequate. This is merely a question of enforcement, which is easier for the police.
17 Oct 2005 : Column 605

6.15 pm

The problem before us is that of the use of hands-free telephone equipment in cars is a difficult offence to enforce. We do not have official statistics on the number of prosecutions for failing to maintain control, but an informal survey of police forces in England and Wales suggests that during 2004 move than 50,000 fixed penalties were issued. The use of hand-held phones therefore seems to be reducing as the new prohibition comes into force and we are conditioning driving behaviour. Further, we are spending half a million pounds on campaigns to point out to drivers exactly the message which all who spoke in this debate were eager to articulate; namely, that there are inherent dangers in using such devices while driving. The Highway Code tells drivers that they have to maintain proper control at all times and warns them that using hands-free equipment is likely to be distracting.

I hear the arguments put forward by the noble Lord in moving his amendment, and he anticipated my response in his opening statement. I am sorry that I am not able to produce anything more novel, but I think that he will recognise the validity of my argument. We have made progress on hand-held phones, and I acknowledge the problems of enforcement with regard to the other kinds. However, we are communicating vigorously to the public the dangers of availing themselves of these devices whether they are driving cars or riding pedal cycles. They may find themselves in a position where such telephone use would count heavily against them should an accident take place for which they were responsible. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Viscount Simon: I was delighted to hear what my noble friend said. He said that 50,000 fixed-penalty notices have been applied so far and I am assuming that they are in relation to motorists. In all the years that I have been going out on traffic control, I have not yet seen any bicyclist stopped for any offence whatever, let alone for using a mobile phone.

I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Berkeley has said that using his Bluetooth system does not work when he is moving. That is a very efficient system. I wonder whether a similar system could be applied to a moving vehicle whereby if the wheels are moving a mobile phone cannot not be used. However, that is another matter. As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, knows, it is difficult to progress any further. On that basis I will not press my amendment.

Earl Attlee: I am a little confused. Did the Minister say that 50,000 fixed penalties were issued against cyclists or that 50,000 fixed penalties were issued against motor car drivers using mobile phones?

Lord Davies of Oldham: I have spread confusion and I apologise to the noble Earl. The 50,000 fixed penalties to which I referred were for the number of prosecutions of drivers for failing to have full control
17 Oct 2005 : Column 606
of their vehicles. The offences may be related to mobile phones, but they also relate to other forms of losing control.

Earl Attlee: I know that the Minister cannot say how many of the penalties were issued to pedal cyclists for using mobile phones, but can he indicate the number of prosecutions or fixed penalties issued to cyclists at all?

Lord Davies of Oldham: I am sorry but I do not have the data that the noble Earl asks for with regard to cyclists. I will write to him.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page