Leading Article : A word in your ear about mobile phones

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The Independent Online
It's bad to talk. While driving a car, at any rate. Yesterday, Peter Mill was jailed for causing death by dangerous driving. He had been listening to the message service on his mobile phone when his Rover came to a bend, went over to the wrong side of the road and smashed into a van driven by Geoffrey Murray, who later died of his injuries.

Ten years after the mobile phone started to be widely used in Britain, perhaps it is time it came of age. It has become an accepted part of our social furniture, absorbed into the fabric of daily life with surprising ease and speed. But many of the rules governing its use are still being made up as we go along, and we ought to consider them before they are set in stone.

First, though, let us deal specifically with mobile phones in cars. This is an emotive subject, but the Government was quite right to announce on Monday that it would not bring in a new offence of using a phone while driving. New Labour's enthusiasm for banning things is not yet universal. The very fact that Mr Mill was brought to justice demonstrates that the existing law on dangerous driving is stringent enough. However, it ought to be more widely understood that it is already illegal to use a hand- held telephone while driving.

The grey area here concerns hands-free phones - either those microphones on the sun visor or the new headsets. A recent study in Canada suggested that drivers are four times more likely to have an accident when they are using a phone. But it also suggested that the risk was no different for hands-free phones, because concentration is still impaired. This prompted the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to call for a complete ban on car phones, but the finding defies common sense because it implies that talking to someone requires a degree of concentration so intense as to make safe driving impossible. If that were true, then surely passengers should be banned, too? What is clearly dangerous is driving with one hand or holding the phone with the shoulder, and the police ought to adopt a policy of zero tolerance of these reckless practices.

However, lax enforcement reflects ambivalent attitudes towards motor cars rather than towards mobile phones. The phones have merely insinuated themselves into an existing ambiguity about the acceptable risk from our favourite killing machines.

Portable telephones are now everywhere, shedding shafts of unexpected light on all kinds of different aspects of our lives. When they first hit the streets in a big way, they were the objects of envy and ridicule. "Poser phones" the size of bricks were used by yuppies in the mid-Eighties Lawson boom as a form of conspicuous consumption. We journalists started to use them in the 1987 election, and much fun was had at the expense of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley by comparing what they said on National Insurance contributions in different parts of the country at the same time. That campaign was run by a new party official called Peter Mandelson, who, 10 years later, got his revenge, running a machine of ferocious technological professionalism. The entire Labour operation this time was tightly interconnected by mobile phone, pager and satellite link. When the disciplined ranks of Blair's Model Army marched into Whitehall on 2 May, much fun was had in turn at the expense of fuddy-duddy civil servants who did not know how to work the gadgetry.

Envy and ridicule started to give way to irritation and acceptance when the mobile phone entered family life. In much of London, at least, when older children come out of school these days, half of them are on the phone as they come through the gates. This makes sense from a parent's point of view: if they have a phone, there is no excuse for not knowing where they are. It is partly about security. Whereas in America older women might carry a Beretta in their handbag, here they carry a tiny flip- open for safety. One reason why an absolute ban on mobile phones in cars would be wrong is that lone female drivers often feel they need them in case of a breakdown.

But it is partly also about the quality of relationships. In the face of widespread alarm about the breakdown of families, it should be remembered that the rising volume of phone use does compensate to some extent for physical separation. Indeed, many parents and offspring find they get on much better talking on the phone rather than face to face.

We cannot turn the clock back on the social changes that have fragmented (and liberated) families and communities, but we can use technology to try to knit together freer forms of association.

Let us, then, stop carping about those numbingly banal snatches of overheard conversations ("We're just leaving the station, so I'll be there in about 10 minutes"). Let us learn to tolerate the fact that they do not always work very well. Let us leave aside Luddite scare stories about highly speculative and unproven links between mobile phone radio waves and cancer. Mobile phones have come of age with this Government. They are such an established feature that they are going to tax the wavebands they use. We are now governed by a prime minister who has spent much of his adult life with one ear glued to one. We might as well get used to them.