Pointing the finger at the hands-off brigade

By Carol Midgley. This is an extract of 'Times2' (THE TIMES, 07/04/06):

Until this week I had assumed that the crime of driving while talking on a mobile phone was a bit like the old sodomy laws for married couples: the practice was technically illegal, but few people ever got done for it.

But I was wrong. The Times has just revealed that the number of motorists caught and fined for driving and dialling has almost doubled in a year. In Merseyside, where I live, the number of penalties dished out to people braying into their Nokias while zooming around the suburbs has risen by 210 per cent.

So why is it that I don’t know — or know of — a single person who has been caught, fined or even lightly finger-wagged for using a phone at the wheel? Everywhere I look everybody is at it, but I never see the police feeling anyone’s collar.

At traffic lights cars pull away rudderless as a giggling woman changes gear with one hand and clamps her toxic brick to her ear with the other. At the steering wheels of 20-tonne articulated lorries, drivers stare downwards, tongues lolling, as they text their friends. This week in London I saw a lunatic white van man tailgating, using his mobile phone and giving the finger all at the same time while a nearby police car ignored him. Perhaps there are so many millions of people sneering at the law that the police have merely nicked the tip of the iceberg.

Most of us have at some point used our phones illegally while driving; denying it is pointless. The mobile can be a soothing anaesthetic during a tedious journey; to the permanently hurried modern worker, it offers a blissful, uninterrupted personal call in a hermetically sealed tin can. And despite the new law, many determinedly continue to use their phones, undaunted by the threat of a piddling £30 fine. Some people I know save their calls up for the journey home in the car. They dismiss sophisticated hands-off devices (“it hurts my ears”) and the fact that 99 per cent of the time they are swapping inconsequential drivel and choose to risk a multiple pile-up so that they can discuss from the M1 whether to have pasta or curry for dinner.

When confronted with research showing that a motorist is four times more likely to cause an accident if he is talking on the phone, determined drive-diallers will turn prickly and claim persecution. “Why don’t they fine smokers/arguing couples/people picking their noses? They don’t always have both hands on the wheel,” they whinge, like junkies defending a filthy habit. Hell, they actually are junkies, according to an Australian study published this week. Some people are so addicted to their mobile phones that they suffer anxiety and loss of self-esteem, it said, if they are not constantly receiving and making calls.

But I don’t believe that drivers should take all the flak for this national display of law-breaking. What about the people who call you when you are driving and when you say “Can’t talk, sorry. Driving!” they reply “Right, but can I just quickly tell you blah, blah . . .” and proceed to talk for ten minutes, leaving the swivel-eyed motorist scanning the horizon for policemen while not wanting to be impolite.

Ah, I hear you say, but it’s the drivers’ own fault for answering in the first place; the responsibility is with them and they should pull over or call back later. And, of course, you are right. But we live in an age in which we are expected to be permanently on-call, contactable at a second’s notice for work, partners, friends, children — even when we have just nipped out to Tesco for toilet roll. When the familiar ring-tone strikes up, too many people jump robotically to answer before common sense has time to kick in.

Next year the penalty for using a mobile phone while driving will rise to £60 and hit the offender with three penalty points. I reckon that they should also tag on a “selfish friends” clause so that callers who persist in encouraging their mates to defy the law can be traced and duly made to carry their share of the can. Watch how swiftly your callers hang up then.