Clause 22 - Breach of requirements as to control of vehicle, mobile telephones etc.

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 27th January 2005.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 10:45 am, 27th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 13, in clause 22, page 25, line 14, after 'vehicle', insert 'or pedal cycle'.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 14, in clause 22, page 25, line 18, at end add 'or pedal cycle'.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The amendment concerns the pedal cycle equivalence provision that I wish to incorporate into the Bill. From what the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) said in Transport questions on 21 December, she is already wedded to the amendment.

If people are cycling and using mobile phones at the same time, they present a hazard, not only to themselves but to other road users. Indeed, only last Saturday I was driving through the village of Bransgore in the New Forest and I had to spend quite a long time following a cyclist who was negotiating the bends while using his mobile phone. He was completely oblivious to the traffic conditions surrounding him and was putting himself at danger. Had he not been in front of such a careful, considerate and patient driver, there might well have been an accident.

Ironically—and sadly—a fatality was caused in that same village last year as a result of a pedestrian using a mobile phone. She was so absorbed in the conversation that she stepped off the pavement into the path of another vehicle and was killed. We cannot legislate to require pedestrians not to use mobile phones. However, we can send out a strong message to all road users that the use of mobile phones can result in their not paying sufficient care and attention to what is happening and thereby putting themselves and others in danger.

''It is already an offence to be in charge of a cycle while not properly in control of it. I would argue that using a mobile phone while cycling demonstrates that the cyclist is not cycling safely. I understand that Conservative Members occasionally use mobile phones while cycling.''

Perhaps some do, but certainly not me. The Minister continued:

''I consulted my local community police officer, who informed me that he certainly considers cycling while using a mobile phone to be an unsafe practice.''—[Official Report, 21 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 2048.]

If cycling while using a mobile phone is an unsafe and undesirable practice and the Minister thinks that it is already a breach of the law, why should there be a specific offence that applies to motorists but no specific offence that applies to cyclists? I would be grateful for any explanation to justify such a distinction.

The episode of the driver who was turning left while trying to catch up on her breakfast and eating an apple—following the Government's five-a-day principle, no doubt—was well reported in many newspapers, including the Daily Mail. The press response was one of surprise that the person concerned was committing an offence. The main outrage was that some £10,000 or more of public money was spent securing a conviction.

If driving while eating an apple and not paying attention is equivalent to driving while using a mobile phone, reading a newspaper or whatever, why are we singling out one particular example, rather than relying on the generality of the construction and use regulations, which are currently the law?

I fear that identifying a particular example as a specific offence might undermine the general message that people should have full control over their vehicles while they are driving and, indeed, full control over their bicycles while they are cycling. That is the import of the amendment, which would make it apparent that the Government accept that vulnerable road users, even though they do not happen to be at the wheel of a car, owe a duty to themselves and others.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I rise to support the spirit of my hon. Friend's argument, and I look forward to the Minister's comments. There is growing concern among regular road users about the fact that cyclists seem to be able to behave with impunity whenever they are on the public highway.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Some cyclists; I stand properly corrected by the Minister. None the less, that ''some'' appears to be an ever-growing number. They not only use mobile phones, but ride after dark without lights and sail through red traffic lights as if traffic lights did not apply to them. While we in Parliament fine vehicle after vehicle to toughen up the penalties on those who drive them, the authorities appear to be ignoring the behaviour of cyclists; that, at least, is the perception.

I am not inviting the Minister to stray out of order, but it would help the Committee if he said whether the Government had a programme or a policy to ensure that cyclists who are a menace to themselves and others on the road properly obey the law and do not transgress in the way that they appear to be doing in ever-increasing numbers.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

In replying, will the Minister consider whether the amendment goes far enough and whether a cyclist is permitted to use a hands-free mobile phone? The hon. Member for Christchurch related the tragic story of a pedestrian who was so distracted while having a conversation on a mobile phone that she walked in front of a vehicle. Will the Minister consider whether the same element of distraction does not apply equally to cyclists and, indeed, motorists? In that respect, my attention was brought this morning to the tragic case of a Mr. Saunders, who died 18 months after being hit by a car doing 70 mph on the A3. The driver was using a hands-free mobile and said that he did not see the cyclist until he was a couple of yards away. Will the Minister address that aspect of the amendment too?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

It gives me very great pleasure to support the Stanley Johnson amendment. It is not given to many people—assuming that the amendment is accepted—to change legislation before they become a Member of Parliament. I say that because I have little doubt that Stanley Johnson will be the next hon. Member for Teignbridge on 5 May, although what he says to his son when he gets here is another matter. I notice that the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross)—these are his last few weeks in the House before we replace him—is not in his seat. It would be good if the person who currently represents Teignbridge indicated that he had full confidence in his successor.

That said, there is a crucial issue here. I appreciate that some cyclists have the view that their conduct is not, in itself, a particular problem. You may sometimes hear that pedestrians on pavements ought to get out of the way of cyclists. That sort of issue crops up from time to time.

We have to be clear that, although the cyclist himself may not come to much harm if he does something stupid, the capacity for a stupid cyclist to cause mayhem among other people minding their own business is very great. It is not in the least unreasonable to say that they should be brought within the ambit of this regulation. If the argument runs that somebody driving a car while holding a telephone in their hands is a danger, then it ought to follow that a cyclist doing exactly the same thing is also a danger. I have no difficulty in supporting this amendment. 

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I endorse everything that has been said. Cyclists can be as much a danger as motor vehicle users when using a mobile telephone. There is no logic at all in the law applying to those driving motor vehicles, while those riding a bicycle are able to continue to use a so-called ''hands-free device''. There should be an overall review of the laws in relation to this, because there is no such thing as a hands-free device, as we all know from using hands-free mobile phones in our own motor cars. It often requires the user of the vehicle to press a button or touch the device at some point. There is a danger in that. Extending it those who use bicycles is logical and reasonable, and would add to safety for the cycle users themselves, as well as pedestrians and other road users.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

This is the first time I have risen to speak in this Committee, and it would be remiss of me not to say what a pleasure it is to serve under your excellent chairmanship, Mr Pike.

I fully agree with hon. Members opposite. Cyclists should not use mobile phones while cycling. The Highway Code makes it absolutely clear that cyclists need to keep both hands on the handlebars, except when they need to signal or change gear. We have no evidence, however, that cyclists have caused accidents as the result of using a mobile phone. The hon. Member for Christchurch is clearly very unlucky to have come across cyclists who are using mobile phones and consistently do not cycle safely. Although cyclists certainly do break the law, there is no evidence of a need for particular legislation to stop cyclists using mobile phones. Plus, the cyclist is probably putting themselves at greater risk than they are other road users. A cycle is a relatively small vehicle which would probably cause damage to a pedestrian, but in the uneven battle between a car and a cyclist, the cyclist is far more likely to come off worst.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Is the hon. Lady suggesting that we should not also concern ourselves with the safety of cyclists? She makes a good point, that cyclists are going to be in danger if they use a mobile phone, which means taking their hands off the handlebars. Surely we should protect their interests as well.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Certainly, but we could also perhaps legislate for a cyclist eating an apple while riding their bicycle. It makes no more sense to do that than it does to legislate for their using a mobile phone. The police already have adequate powers to deal with cyclists who cycle dangerously. Let us make it clear that it is a minority of cyclists who cycle dangerously or carelessly. We have seen a growth in cycling, particularly on cycle paths and off-road. We are also ensuring that cyclists get proper training. We are introducing a new training regime to ensure both that people who are not used to cycling in traffic get appropriate training and that there is training for youngsters who cycle to school or near their homes.  

The important point is that we do not need to legislate to dissuade cyclists from using a mobile phone. Any cyclist should recognise that it is sensible to have both hands on the handlebars and to keep control of their bike. It is clear that police do not often prosecute cyclists but, under sections 28 and 29 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, they have the appropriate powers to take action against those who are cycling dangerously or carelessly. The penalty for dangerous cycling is a maximum fine of £2,500. For careless cycling, it is £1,000. Those are more than adequate penalties.

The amendments do not work as amendments because the construction and use regulations of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986, made under section 41 of the 1988 Act, do not contain requirements that prohibit the riding of a pedal cycle when using a hand-held mobile phone. Therefore, there is nothing against which the offence of contravening the regulations could be applied. That is a technical issue.

I do not believe that we need to take action against a cyclist using a mobile phone. We need to train cyclists and get them to understand not to drive dangerously, whether by holding a mobile phone, eating an apple or, as often happens, cycling on pavements and going through red lights. We must create a culture in which cyclists understand that they too must obey the rules of the road. They can be dangerous. Cyclists who cycle in that way give a poor example to those youngsters we are trying to encourage to take up cycling because it is healthy exercise and helps to combat obesity. I hope that the work that we are doing in Government will encourage people to take to cycling, both to get to work and for leisure purposes. It can be a pleasurable activity but only if people take the appropriate steps to ensure that they are cycling safely, and not putting themselves, pedestrians or, indeed, motorists at risk by creating conditions in which accidents can occur.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland) 11:00 am, 27th January 2005

The Minister is making an excellent argument in favour of why the amendment should not be accepted. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) is not in place to hear this excellent argument. However, on the point that she makes about cycle paths, is it not the case that concentrating on separating cyclists from the road wherever possible is the best possible way of achieving safety?

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

That is true. I often find it strange that cycles can go into bus lanes. As someone who has cycled in London quite a lot, particularly in the borough of Wandsworth, which the hon. Member for Christchurch knows well, the idea of cycling in a bus lane seems to me somewhat suicidal because a bus is rather larger than a car. I have been pushed off a bicycle; as I was cycling to a hospital, as it happens. It is important to try to separate bicycles from cars. Increasingly, as more and more people take bikes on to   the roads, particularly in places such as London where a critical mass has been reached, motorists are noticing cyclists more than in the past. It is becoming safer for cyclists, because they are being noticed. We must recognise, however, that we will all—cyclists and, indeed, motorists—have to be much more considerate on the roads.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

What the Minister said contains, as one would expect, a lot of common sense. One expects that from people who used to serve on Wandsworth council, as she did. However, I am not sure that the common sense she has articulated is shared by all the cycling fraternity. There seems to be a feeling—reflected in some of the press comment when we let it be known that we would be tabling the amendment—that they are not doing anything wrong when cycling and using a mobile phone. The point that the hon. Lady makes is that by that sort of behaviour they are more likely to cause injury to themselves than to other road users, but surely the same argument applies to seatbelt laws. Adults who fail to put on seatbelts are normally jeopardising their own safety, rather than the safety of others. We have a responsibility as a legislature to ensure that there are laws that result in a reduction in the number of injuries and fatalities on our roads.

The Minister has not explained why she believes that there should be a specific offence of driving while using a mobile phone that carries a mandatory endorsement for motorists, but no specific offence of cycling while using a mobile phone. I do not understand the comparison. Driving while using a mobile phone is a serious issue, and the Government are addressing that with a specific penalty, although one could say that it is only one of a type of behaviour that incorporates not taking proper care of one's own safety while travelling on the road. However, exactly the same principles surely apply to cyclists. Either it is wrong that both cyclists and drivers should have that particular offence specified as an example and used against them, or it is right that we should single out that offence as an example because it is so widespread; probably more widespread than eating apples at the wheel. One can see that there may be an argument for a specific offence, but surely that argument applies just as much to cyclists as it does to drivers.

I am not convinced by the Minister's argument that, because the consequence of that behaviour is likely to result only in damage to the cyclist, rather than other road users, it is less unacceptable. She said that there is no evidence that cyclists cause accidents while using mobile phones. I have anecdotal evidence from my constituency that people feel intimidated by cyclists who are using pavements and mobile phones at the same time. If the police were going to give cyclists a fixed penalty, it would be much easier if they had a specific offence with which they could charge the cyclist, rather than having to go to enormous expense, perhaps using helicopters, to establish that the cyclist was causing a danger to themselves or others.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The point is that there is no body of evidence to demonstrate that cyclists using mobile phones are creating a problem. There is a huge body of evidence to demonstrate that motorists, whatever vehicle they are driving, using mobile phones create problems and accidents. That is why the clause suggests that we should make such an offence endorseable. However, there is anecdotal comment about cyclists causing a problem because they are driving dangerously or carelessly. That may or may not be as the result of holding a mobile phone. Unfortunately, I probably have more complaints from people about cyclists going through red lights than about those using mobile phones. Careless or dangerous driving by cyclists is usually related to other offences such as jumping lights or cycling on pavements. Use of mobile phones by cyclists is not a big problem, because that would be very dangerous for the cyclist; much more so than other offences that they might commit. That is why I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to the Minister for her response. Unfortunately, it is not consistent with what she said on 21 December. She said:

''I would argue that using a mobile phone while cycling demonstrates that the cyclist is not cycling safely.''—[Official Report, 21 December 2004; Vol. , c. 2048.]

She did not say that there was no evidence that there were unsafe consequences resulting from that behaviour. She seemed to accept that there were cyclists cycling while using mobile phones.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

In exactly the same way, motorists who are using mobile phones can be prosecuted. There is a lot to be said for equivalence. There is a feeling among some road users about actions of the cycling fraternity, or at least some of them. I do not want to generalise or make people think that I am prejudiced against cyclists. That is not true, because I am a cyclist. The fact that, many years ago, a cyclist coming down a one-way street in the wrong direction hit my wife and her dog does not mean I have a longstanding resentment against all cyclists. On that occasion, the cycle touring club were generous enough to write us a letter, expressing sympathy over the behaviour of that cyclist.

However, I believe that it is important that all road users should recognise a degree of equivalence. There is nothing more annoying for a motorist than to see a cyclist with a mobile phone cycling along with impunity, when he knows that if he were to use a mobile phone, he would be slapped down with a fixed penalty and an endorsement. The argument for equivalence is a strong one, and I hope that other Committee members will support me.

Question put, That the amendment be made:— 

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 13.

Division number 5 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 22 - Breach of requirements as to control of vehicle, mobile telephones etc.

Aye: 4 MPs

No: 13 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 11:15 am, 27th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 15, in clause 22, page 25, line 23, at end insert

'except in circumstances where a motor vehicle is stationary and the engine is switched off.'.

This is a common-sense amendment that will appeal to all members of the Committee. It makes clear that someone using a mobile phone in a stationary vehicle with the engine switched off would not be guilty of an offence. I am concerned that the present law, because of the wide definition of the expression ''driving'' in road traffic legislation, could mean that people who get stuck in long traffic jams, switch off their engines and communicate with others to inform them of the delay will, strictly speaking, be committing an offence.

The law is brought into disrepute if we allow offences to go on to the statute book that everyone realises are an absolute nonsense. The injustice is even greater where there is no power to mitigate the fixed penalties, as there is not for the proposed offence in question, which will result in a mandatory minimum three-point endorsement on a licence. I am sure the Government do not intend to penalise motorists who are stuck in traffic jams, but the way to ensure they do not do so is to amend the law now to ensure that that is apparent on the face of the statute. It is a simple point, and I hope the Government will be able to accept my reasonable amendment.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The amendment is unnecessary. I am not aware of any driver being prosecuted for the situation described by the hon. Member's amendment; namely, failing to have proper control of a vehicle when using a hand-held mobile phone if they are stationary with the engine switched off. In such a situation we do not need to be as prescriptive as the hon. Member suggests. In fact, if a motorist receives a phone call and wants to take it, we advise that they pull over to the side of the road, where it is safe, turn off the engine and return the call. The term ''driving'', to which the hon. Member referred, is used in much road traffic legislation without further definition.

It is appropriate for the courts to take into account the circumstances of the case when deciding if an offence has been committed, rather than us trying to set that out in legislation. For instance, if a traffic light went red as a motorist approached it and they   momentarily turned off the engine, I would not consider that to be the right time to use a mobile phone. However, if someone is stuck in a five-mile tailback because of an accident on the motorway and all the vehicles around them are stationary with their engines turned off, clearly it is fine to use a mobile phone, because the motorist is not about to drive off. Ultimately, it is not for the Department to interpret the law. It must be for the police officer on the spot to decide whether an offence has been committed. If a driver wishes to contest that, he has the chance to do so in court. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment. It is not necessary and any sensible person would recognise that if the car is stationary and the engine is turned off, no offence will be committed.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I was minded not to support the amendment until I listened to the Minister. She has persuaded me of the opposite case. Rather than adding clarity to what I thought was a clear situation, obfuscation has crept in. She said that it would be quite wrong sitting at a red traffic light. On the A9 at Berriedale late last year, thanks to the good offices of my friend the Transport Minister in the Scottish Executive, some excellent roadworks were undertaken. However, that meant that one sat for 15 to 20 minutes, particularly late at night, waiting for the vehicles to go up and down. We all knew that and were all happy with it, because we knew the good results that we would get. Frankly, when there was a red light we all switched our engines off to conserve fuel, which is very expensive in the north, and might well have made a telephone call. That is a circumstance that is in direct contravention to the one that she put forward.

I would have thought that since the purpose of the legislation is to stop people driving inattentively, and hitting things while they are moving, if the engine is switched off that cannot happen and therefore the amendment might have some use after all.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Clearly, in such circumstances no police officer would prosecute a motorist simply because there was a long wait. I was referring to the   idea that someone could get round the legislation by momentarily turning off the engine and then picking up the mobile phone, and saying, ''But officer, the car's engine is no longer running and I was therefore safely using my mobile phone.'' A situation where one expects to be waiting in line for 15 minutes or more is totally different.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Taking the Minister's reply, if a vehicle is stationary and the engine is switched off, whether the intention is to be there for several minutes or just a minute or two, an traffic offence cannot be being committed. I am persuaded by the comments made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. I do not see that the time, or the fact that one is in a long queue, is actually relevant. The lack of power and lack of movement of the vehicle is what is relevant.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

No, I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. The point that I was making is that someone should not simply turn off the engine once they see a police officer approaching, and say that they are not guilty because the engine is turned off. If the engine is turned off to conserve energy because the driver is going nowhere, it is rather a different situation from one in which the engine is turned off for 15 seconds or so, so that the driver would not be guilty of an offence. That is the issue. The engine might be momentarily turned off, or in the case of an electric car, it might have turned itself off to conserve energy. The point is that at any one time, if one is driving a motor car, one wants to be aware of the road conditions and what is happening at that particular time and should not turn off the engine for 15 seconds when one is proceeding down the road. One should be focusing on driving carefully rather than using a mobile phone.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I do not want to labour the point, but is not an engine being on or off rather like the word ''unique''? We cannot have degrees of an engine being off. If it is off, it is off.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till Tuesday 1 February at twenty-five minutes past Nine o'clock.