When Barbara Castle introduced the breathalyser for testing drink drivers in 1967, she did so in the teeth of fierce opposition. Drinking and driving was considered acceptable. Today it is regarded as one of the most dangerously self-indulgent and socially unacceptable activities.

A similar change now needs to happen in the way we think about the use of mobile phones when driving. The facts are simple. If you use a hand-held mobile while driving, you are four times more likely to crash.

In 2005, 12 people were killed and 452 people injured in road accidents where a police officer attended the scene and "driver using mobile phone" was reported as a contributory factor.

Yet we regard this menace as just another peril of modern living. Confession time: I have been as guilty as anyone of this, but now, like a growing number of people and road safety groups, I believe the time has come to clamp down and to hammer home the message that behaviour has to change.

Research by the Transport Research Laboratory and the insurer Direct Line compared the use of a mobile phone while at the wheel with driving when just over the drink-drive limit. They found reaction times were slower for drivers using phones, compared with those who had consumed alcohol. The drunk drivers missed fewer warning signs than drivers using a mobile phone, who were more likely to respond to the wrong warning signs. A sobering thought and not only for the drunks.

Since December 2003 it has been illegal in the UK to use a hand-held mobile phone when driving. In 2004, some 74,000 drivers were caught on British roads and fined for breaking that law. However, in a recent survey, 21 per cent of drivers interviewed admitted to using a mobile phone while driving. This means that only 1 per cent of offenders are being caught and fined.

The punishment? An average fine of £69. Deterrent? I don't think so.

For a government keen to dominate the agenda on crime and anti-social behaviour, it is a less than impressive achievement. So much so, in fact, that it has now been forced to act and, from 27 February, those caught using a hand-held mobile phone while behind the wheel will have three penalty points endorsed on their licence. Any driver with 12 points over a three-year period becomes liable for a six-month disqualification.

Two cheers, then. For increasing the penalty will do little to improve detection. We need more traffic police. But their numbers, in England and Wales, have declined by 5 per cent since 2000 as ever-greater reliance is placed on speed cameras and other automated systems. For the Government, the attractions are obvious. Speed cameras don't need salaries and pensions. But they should never be used as an alternative to a well trained cadre of traffic police officers.

Ultimately, the answer lies with us. Just how important is that call? Is it worth risking your life for? Is it worth risking someone else's life?

The writer is Liberal Democrat Shadow Transport Secretary


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