Adjournment (Christmas)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:34 pm on 19th December 1990.

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Photo of Mr Douglas French Mr Douglas French , Gloucester 7:34 pm, 19th December 1990

I doubt that any Christmas Adjournment debate would be complete without a speech about road safety. In the short time available, 1 want to talk about the dangers posed by motorists who drive while simultaneously holding telephones—especially those who charge along the motorway with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a car phone, and those who try to guide their cars around roundabouts steering with their knees or elbows because they are using one had to key in a number and the other hand to hold the dialling mechanism.

I have raised this matter a number of times. Sometimes I have been referred to the highway code, which states: Do not use a hand held microphone or telephone handset while your vehicle is moving except in an emergency". It is obvious to me from what I see every day that that sound advice is being flagrantly ignored—and it is only advice; it has no statutory backing.

When I have mentioned the problem to the Department of Transport, I have been told that it can be dealt with adequately by existing legislation, namely section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, which covers driving without due care and attention and driving without reasonable consideration for other road users. I have also been referred to the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986, which make it an offence not to be in proper control of a vehicle.

It is true that the existing legislation provides a statutory basis for prosecutions, but that is possible only when the danger has already been caused. It tackles the problem of those who drive carelessly, but does not address itself to the reasons for that careless driving. We need measures that will prevent, or curb, the dangerous practice that may cause accidents, before those accidents happen.

All car telephones should be equipped with remote loudspeakers and microphones, so that drivers can hear and be heard without having to hold receivers to their ears. Secondly, all care telephones should have preprogrammed short-call dialling facilities or voice-activated dialling, so that drivers can make calls without having to hold the dialling mechanism in their hands or take their eyes of the road. These are very modest requirements: many car telephones already in use are already so equipped, and I think that they all should be.

It is evident from the response to my representations that the Department of Transport is not persuaded by my arguments; I predict, however, that in time it will change its mind. In the 1990s, up to 5 million car telephones are likely to be in use; if we include portable personal phones which can be used in cars, the figures will be far higher before the decade is out. That means that, for part of almost every journey, the vehicle involved will be driven with only one hand.

Another menace that looms on the horizon is the use of portable photocopiers and fax machines in motor cars. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) seems astonished, but I can inform her that the machines are positioned on the front passenger seat, and plugged into the cigarette lighter. It may be a convenient facility for a salesman or indeed a politician in a hurry, but there is also too great a temptation to operate the photocopier or fax machine while driving.

Before long, we may have television sets in motor cars. At the moment, they are confined to the back seats of luxury motor cars, but the time may come when they take their place alongside radios on the fascia boards of family motor cars. That will pose a massive threat to road safety. The Secretary of State for Transport ought to take that threat extremely seriously. I urge the Leader of the House to pass to the Secretary of State the message that road safety figures will suffer dramatically unless something is done to stamp out this menace.