Drivers face tougher penalties in road safety crackdown

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A crackdown on motorists using mobile phones and more flexible speeding fines were among measures in a Road Safety Bill announced in the Queen's Speech today.

A crackdown on motorists using mobile phones and more flexible speeding fines were among measures in a Road Safety Bill announced in the Queen's Speech today.

A Railways Bill which will enable the Government to carry out its previously-announced plans to shake up the way the railways are run was also announced.

The Government is also bringing forward a Crossrail Bill to build the long-awaited and much-delayed cross-London Crossrail scheme. But, as already revealed, the project will not be ready in time for 2012, should London be awarded that year's Olympics.

The Road Safety Bill is designed to help the Government achieve its decade-end targets for reducing deaths and serious injuries on the roads.

It will seek to bring in tougher penalties for driving while using a hand-held mobile phone and also for careless and inconsiderate driving and using a vehicle in a dangerous condition.

The Bill will also tackle drink-driving by enabling mandatory re-testing of the worst offenders and providing the police with the power to take evidence at the roadside. It will also close a loophole allowing offenders at highest risk of re-offending to drive pending medical inquiries.

The Government has already outlined plans to have graduated fines for speeding and this policy was confirmed today in the Road Safety Bill. The new system will distinguish between a driver travelling at, say, 32mph in a 30mph limit, and another going at, say, 39mph.

The Bill will also clarify which vehicles can exceed limits in emergency situations, look at the problem of fatigue-related accidents, allow the police to more effectively use motor insurance data and number plate recognition technology to detect uninsured drivers, and allow courts to make increased use of retraining courses for serious poor-driving offenders.

The Railways Bill will see the Department for Transport take over some of the decision-making tasks from the Strategic Rail Authority which - as announced last summer - is being scrapped.

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has been keen to set the rail strategy and he is due shortly to announce just how his department will take over SRA duties.

The Bill also includes the transfer of rail safety responsibilities from the Health and Safety Executive to the Office for Rail Regulation.

The Rail Passengers Council - the main passengers' "champion" - is to be reformed to become " a stronger, more independent national body reporting directly to the Transport Secretary".

Infrastructure company Network Rail will be given clear responsibility for operating the network and for its performance, while track and train companies will work more closely together.

The number of train operating companies, already down from the original 25 to 19, will be further reduced. Last week Mr Darling said that the number could come down to 15 or 16.

The Crossrail project, which has been spoken of for years, could eventually see trains operating 24 services an hour in peak times running from west of the capital, through central London out to the east of the city, carrying nearly 200 million passengers a year.

The Government reckons the benefits will outweigh the costs by around two to one.

But much remains to be done, not least on finance.

At present, the Department for Transport, the Treasury and Transport for London are working on a funding solution which is equitable to all parties.

On transport generally, the Government reiterated the main points of its transport White Paper published last summer.

These points include the possibility of tolls on some new roads and the introduction of lanes for high-occupancy vehicles.

RAC spokesperson Susie Haywood said: "Motorists will welcome a more graduated system for points and fines as a deterrent to speeding.

"The majority of drivers are usually only going a few miles over the posted speed limit, yet they get slammed with the same level of fines and penalty points on their licence as those doing dangerously high speeds."

She went on: "RAC research shows that 72% of drivers still think that speed limited enforcement via safety cameras is more about raising revenues than improving road safety.

"Reducing the fines should help drivers to feel less penalised and encourage them to see cameras as a necessary part of a comprehensive road safety campaign.

"However, fines should be appropriate to driving conditions and location, so driving over 20mph, for example, in a school zone is still expected to attract a heavy fine."

Road safety charity Brake said: "We strongly object to graduated fines for speeding which further weaken penalties that were ridiculously low in the first place."