Drivers could be banned from using hands-free mobile phones under plans outlined by MPs today.
Stiffer penalties, more enforcement by police and better education are needed to tackle motorists using devices behind the wheel, according to the Commons Transport Committee.
The Government should act to prevent the “entirely avoidable” tragedy of deaths and serious injuries from crashes caused by irresponsible drivers on the phone, it says in a 25-page report published today.
The study calls on ministers to launch a public consultation on banning hands-free calls in cars. “The law currently only proscribes using a hand-held mobile phone or other device while driving,” says the report.
“A hands-free device can be used lawfully, creating the misleading impression that hands-free use is safe.
“The evidence shows that using a hands-free device creates the same risks of a collision as using a hand-held device, and it is therefore inappropriate for the law to condone it by omission.”
The committee recommends the “Government explore options for extending the ban on driving while using a hand-held mobile phone or other device to hands-free devices”.
Calling for a public consultation before the end of the year, it adds: “This should consider the evidence of the risks involved, the consequences of a ban, and the practicalities of enforcing it.”
Some critics of a fresh crackdown say hands-free calls or no different from talking with passengers.
But road safety campaigners backed demands for ministers to consider banning such calls behind the wheel.
Brake’s director of campaigns Joshua Harris said: “The Government must clarify the law on using hand-held mobile devices while driving and close loopholes which treat sending or receiving data differently.
“The current law also provides a dangerous false impression that it is safe to use a mobile phone with a hands-free kit - it is not.
“All phone use behind the wheel is dangerous, and we need the law to reflect this by banning the use of hands-free devices.
“We echo MPs’ call for the Government to work with the police to boost enforcement and ensure there is a true deterrent to the menace of mobile phone use behind the wheel.”
But motoring organisations were sceptical banning hands-free calls would boost safety.
AA President Edmund King said: “Drivers should avoid making or receiving calls where possible.
“However a short, sharp, voice activated call can be beneficial to road safety.
“For example, a very short call saying that you are going to be late will stop people from speeding or driving in a dangerous manner.”
RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “Before outlawing hands-free phone use at the wheel we believe the Government should focus all its attention on enforcing the current law which has been in place since 2003 yet is still flouted on a daily basis by thousands of drivers.
“The falling number of roads police officers has clearly not helped the enforcement situation.
“This is why we feel the time has come to look at new technology capable of photographing offenders using their handheld phones while driving.
“If hands-free use were to be banned then it could arguably be even harder to catch drivers in the act than it is now.”
In 2017, there were 773 casualties, including 43 deaths and 135 serious injuries, in crashes where a driver using a mobile phone was a contributory factor.
The number of people killed or seriously injured has risen steadily since 2011.
At the same time, the rate of enforcement has plunged by more than two thirds over the past eight years.
The fixed penalties for driving while using a hand-held mobile phone were hiked from three penalty points and a £100 fine to six penalty points and a £200 fine in March 2017.
Committee chairwoman and Labour MP Lilian Greenwood said: “Despite the real risk of catastrophic consequences for themselves, their passengers and other road users, far too many drivers continue to break the law by using hand-held mobile phones.
“If mobile phone use while driving is to become as socially unacceptable as drink driving much more effort needs to go into educating drivers about the risks and consequences of using a phone behind the wheel.
“Offenders also need to know there is a credible risk of being caught, and that there are serious consequences for being caught.
“There is also a misleading impression that hands-free use is safe. The reality is that any use of a phone distracts from a driver’s ability to pay full attention and the Government should consider extending the ban to reflect this.”
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: "While mobile phones are a vital part of modern life and business, drivers must always use them safely and responsibly.
"Being distracted by a mobile phone while driving is dangerous and puts people's lives at risk. The law is clear that anyone driving dangerously is committing a criminal offence."