Drivers caught using mobiles phones at the wheel will be committing a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £1,000 under new legislation announced by the Government yesterday.
Safety campaigners welcomed the move, claiming it would help prevent thousands of accidents each year. But the ban, planned to come into force on 1 December, will not apply to hands-free phones.
Drivers using a hand-held mobile while driving will face a £30 fixed penalty or a maximum of £1,000 if convicted of the offence in court. The offence is being introduced by an addition to the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 and will have to be approved by Parliament. Legislation will be introduced to make the offence subject to three penalty points.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa) said it knew of at least 20 people who had died in accidents in which mobile phones were implicated. Hands-free phones were being used in at least two of those cases, it said.
Under the current law, police can only bring charges against drivers who are using mobile phones if their driving is considered careless or dangerous.
Kevin Clinton, Rospa's head of road safety, said: "We are delighted to see a new law, but it will not have the impact we have been hoping for if people switch to hands-free devices instead.
"It is the telephone conversation that is the main problem - people are drawn into the conversation and ignore what is happening on the road around them. They vary their speed, drive closer to other vehicles, wander about on the road and their reactions are slower. We are worried that the powerful mobile phone industry will use the new law as an opportunity to market hands-free kits claiming they are safe, when in fact they are not."
Sumit Biswas, programme director for the mobile operator Vodafone UK, said: "Drivers should be aware that, just because it is legal to use a fixed, hands-free mobile phone in a car, it does not necessarily mean it is safe to do so."
The AA Motoring Trust welcomed the decision not to ban hands-free kits. Andrew Howard, head of road safety, said: "This is a practical approach ... A ban on hands-free would be difficult to enforce without banning the sale of the kits and ordering their removal from cars."
But the RAC warned that the Government faced an "uphill struggle" to ensure the success of the ban. Rebecca Bell, a spokeswoman, said: "A new law on its own is not enough. There must be a properly funded information campaign to get across the message that using a hand-held mobile behind the wheel is potentially lethal."
The Rospa called for employers to make it a disciplinary offence for an employee to use a mobile phone while driving on company business.
Meanwhile, David Jamieson, a Transport minister, said: "Our decision to introduce this new offence will make the roads safer for us all. Missing a call won't kill you, an accident quite possibly could."
Research showed that driving and using a mobile phone meant motorists are four times more likely to have an accident, he said.