Along with being half of one of the UK’s best-loved comic partnerships, Ernie Wise merits a place in history for his part in a telecommunications breakthrough.
On New Year’s Day 1985, he made the country’s first ever mobile phone call, heralding mass adoption of devices which have become considerably smaller, more powerful and more relied-upon in the three decades since.
It is perhaps slightly ironic, though, that even as smartphones have become able to fulfil a much broader range of functions and liberated us from the prospect of having to remain tethered to a landline, calls for constraints on their use continue to mount.
The prohibition on making hand-held calls while driving, for instance, came into effect in December 2003. A fixed penalty of £30 was more than trebled four years later and compounded with three penalty points. However, concerns have persisted that not only is that legislation ineffective but that drivers who make what are currently perfectly legal hands-free calls might not necessarily be much safer behind the wheel, if at all.
New research by academics at Sussex University has concluded that any phone use is a distraction which could result in an accident.
On the basis of my experience and those of my colleagues who deal with motoring cases up and down the country, I would tend to agree.
In my opinion, anything which reduces motorists’ concentration could compromise reaction time and, therefore, safety too.
Some may well disagree with one of the study’s findings. It has been suggested that the only kinds of conversations which should be allowed while a vehicle’s in motion are those with passengers because they are more likely to be quiet when appropriate in order to allow drivers to focus.
There are those who would suggest that is only likely to be the case if the passengers in question understand the pressures on their driver because they are drivers themselves. Campaigners pushing for a complete ban on phone use by motorists may have good, safe and protective intentions but I believe they may be missing the point.
The spirit behind the legislation which banned handheld mobiles was to stop people fiddling with various devices when they should keep their hands on the steering wheel. There is equivalent legislation to cover other ways in which people might not be in full and proper control of their vehicles, such as eating food or doing their make-up.
Arguing that someone was so distracted as to be behaving in a potentially dangerous manner is a subjective position and one which usually comes down to the interpretation of a police officer observing a driver’s conduct at a particular moment in time.
If the aim is to reduce the risk of distraction altogether, there could be serious implications for people using sat-nav, travelling with young children or being slightly lost and engaging in a discussion with a spouse about which is the best direction to follow.
We should bear in mind that phone use is relevant when it comes to careless or dangerous driving, often with very serious consequences. Courts take into account how a mobile may have been used before or during journeys resulting in incidents or accidents in order to establish a pattern of behaviour and its potential effect on a driver’s control of their vehicle. That, in turn, can be considered an aggravating factor, leading to sentences being increased.
Whilst as a motoring lawyer, I totally understand the imperative to make our roads safer, I would urge law-makers and lobbyists alike to consider the practicalities of a complete ban. Surely a more helpful and less reactionary route is to educate drivers as to the risks of not focusing on the road and being more interested in what’s happening on social media or what they’re planning to have for their dinner.
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