Friday 16 September 2016 14.20 BST
Drivers will change their behaviour only when they know for sure all loopholes are closed, and magistrates have no choice but to disqualify them
Almost a third of motorists have admitted to illegally using a mobile phone during the previous year. Photograph: Barry Batchelor/PA
In a survey carried out by the RAC, 31% of motorists admitted to the illegal use of a handheld mobile phone in the previous 12 months. The figure does not surprise many of us who cycle through our major towns and cities and get a good view while we glance at those driving around us. It is perhaps less obvious from another car, yet still if a vehicle is weaving unpredictably as it makes its way down a motorway the explanation, more often than not, turns out to be the driver using a phone.
Crackdown on drivers using mobile phones
Using a handheld phone while driving is, without any stretch of the imagination, dangerous. However there are such grave difficulties in securing a conviction for dangerous or even careless driving, especially in the absence of a collision, that the small proportion of offenders caught and prosecuted will be given a fixed penalty notice conferring three penalty points and a fine of £100.
Late last year David Cameron’s government consulted on increasing the fixed penalties for mobile phone use to £150 and three to four penalty points, and the Department for Transport is still considering the responses to the consultation. The proposed points increase implies that you may only get away with being caught doing it three rather than four times within three years before reaching 12 points and thereby rendering yourself eligible for a driving ban.
Criminologists, though, tell us that an increased likelihood of being punished is more effective a deterrent than a remote chance of a slightly larger penalty. Furthermore, most offending motorists know that they are running a small risk of very serious trouble. They demonstrate this knowledge by the regularity with which they attempt to delete their texts after they have run some innocent victim down. Fortunately, they are usually thwarted because a continuing record remains on analysis of the phone and of the service provider’s records.
This is an offence that needs to be taken a great deal more seriously. With sickening regularity reports emerge of lives being cut short or changed for ever as another road user, often a vulnerable one such as a cyclist or pedestrian, is run down by a driver who is using a phone. In the absence of a crash, a motorist will in practice only be sanctioned if seen by a police officer. This is of itself, given the diminished number of police officers patrolling our roads, an unlikely eventuality. Even then all is not lost.
I once accompanied a member of the Metropolitan Police Cycle Task Force for a morning and watched in bemusement as he let off the driver of a heavy tipper truck chatting on his handheld phone as he drove down Fulham Road with “words of advice”. It goes almost without saying that it is a waste of energy to report to the police that you witnessed such an offence.
Dangerous drivers should not be allowed to choose trial by jury
Perhaps the greatest recent shock was the emergence of the facts surrounding the death of Lee Martin, who received fatal injuries when struck by a van driven by Christopher Gard. Mr Martin was riding a time trial, so Gard should have been aware of a stream of cyclists spaced approximately a minute apart for a stationary spectator (or about 20 seconds relative to Gard). However he had been texting and drove into Lee Martin. Gard, it transpired, was a habitual mobile phone user behind the wheel. He had been caught eight times, for which he received five penalty notices or summonses to court. The last court appearance before the fatal collision was only six weeks earlier. He was on that occasion clearly concerned about possible disqualification. He contested the charge but was convicted following trial. He then successfully pleaded that “exceptional hardship” would result if he was disqualified and the court permitted him to keep his licence.
There is a thriving industry of lawyers who unashamedly advertise their services as the best prospect of keeping a licence after multiple offending. Some even use the term “loophole” in their descriptions of themselves or their services. The DVLA earlier this year provided information that 8,600 drivers were lawfully still driving with 12 or more points on their licence, with a couple of drivers having reached 51 points.
It is time to act and a first step would be to remove the discretion of magistrates not to disqualify when “exceptional hardship” or “special reasons” are demonstrated. Repeat serial offenders have no business being on our roads and no one should mourn the passing of “loophole” lawyers.