Police now check mobile phone records after road collisions to see if the driver was making a call
By David Millward, Transport Editor and Christopher Hope
Motorists caught using a hand-held mobile phone while driving could be jailed for two years under tough new guidelines issued today by prosecutors.
Drivers who adjust sat-navs, tinker with MP3 music players such as iPods or send text messages at the wheel could also face prison sentences.
Prosecutions will be brought if by using the equipment a motorist is judged to have posed a danger to other drivers, such as causing another car to swerve.
Using a hand-held mobile while driving was outlawed in 2003, but it is estimated that half a million motorists flout the ban each day.
Existing guidelines restricted prosecutors to pursuing only a charge of careless driving, for which the maximum fine is £5,000 along with up to nine points on a motorist’s licence.
But under the new rules, drivers could be charged with dangerous driving, which carries a maximum sentence of two years in jail.
It is believed that by increasing the penalties, drivers will start to take the law seriously.
“This sends a clear message to motorists: don’t mix driving and communicating, just as you would not drink and drive,” said Rob Gifford, of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety.
“This is long overdue. At last the law has caught up with the reality of the road, with too many people using their phone while driving.”
But Paul Biggs, a spokesman for the Association of British Drivers, said: “This does seem over the top. I would never condone using a hand-held mobile and would never do it myself. But existing laws cover it and there are plenty of other things which are distracting.”
The new guidelines mean prosecutors will be able to go for a dangerous driving charge, which carries the punishment of an unlimited fine as well as a two-year jail term.
In addition, drivers who kill while using mobile phones could be charged with causing death by dangerous driving, which carries a 14-year jail term. In extreme cases they could be charged with manslaughter for which a life term can be imposed.
A new offence of causing death by careless driving is to be created under the Road Safety Act, due to come into force early next year.
The new guidelines follow a consultation by the Crown Prosecution Service on the policy it should adopt on dealing with cases of “bad driving” brought before the courts.
Using a hand-held mobile was made illegal in 2003, when the penalty was limited to a £30 fine, but it acted as little deterrent and the latest figures show that in 2005 129,700 motorists still flouted the ban.
In February the law was toughened, with drivers facing a £60 fine and three points on their licence.
Drivers were also warned that similar penalties could be imposed for using a hands-free device if they were judged not to be in control of their car.
Police now check mobile phone records after accidents to see if the driver was making a call at the time.
Research by TRL, formerly the Government’s Transport Research Laboratory, has suggested that half a million drivers a day make calls on hand-held mobiles.
Ministers are keen to take an even stronger line after figures showed that mobile phones were linked to 13 fatal accidents in 2005 and 52 serious crashes.
Andrew Howard, of the AA, said drivers using a phone make a decision that falls far below the standard of a reasonable driver. “They have crossed the threshold from careless to dangerous driving. These guidelines make that clear.”