Police get tough to cut mobile motoring
A GROWING number of drivers caught text messaging behind the wheel has helped send the number of motorists fined for using mobile phones up to 150 a month in Lothian and Borders.
Scores of drivers have been hit with 30 on-the-spot fines after police stopped them for driving erratically and discovered they were in the middle of sending a text. Some have even been spotted in the act continuing to text as they drove off after waiting at traffic lights.
In total, more than 3400 drivers have landed 30 fines in Lothian and Borders, since the new penalty was introduced in December 2003.
Police chiefs today expressed their horror at the high number of motorists continuing to use their phones behind the wheel. They warned that the "gloves were off" as they prepared to step up their efforts to catch offending drivers.
Taxi drivers were warned they risk losing their licence if they are caught. And they warned that the penalty for being caught was set to rise to a 60 fine plus three points on the driving licence. The police's renewed efforts include a two-week crackdown starting today, known as Operation Orbit II, involving extra unmarked police cars.
Chief Inspector Kenny Buchanan, head of Lothian and Borders traffic division, said: "We're going to tackle this misuse head on and we'll have lots of unmarked police cars on the roads to make sure people are caught.
"Our officers will mount a very, very strict enforcement. We tell people time and time again that it causes deaths and injuries but they're not listening.
"This message will be hammered home. It's breaking the law, it's dangerous and you will be caught. We've tried education, we've tried advertising. Now it's time to get tough because we're sick and tired of this.
"The gloves are coming off and drivers will soon get the message I assure you."
Chief Insp Buchanan said that officers were catching growing numbers of drivers using their phones to text.
"You have drivers starting off texting at traffic lights then continuing when they go green. They aren't even looking at the road."
"Taxi drivers will not only receive their fine but officers will also report them to the cab office and question whether they should have their licence revoked as a result."
Inspector Douglas Kirkham, who is responsible for roads policing in East Lothian and Midlothian, added: "It's nearly two years since the introduction of this piece of road safety legislation and we are finding that many motorists are continuing to ignore advice not to use phones when driving.
"There is a clear link between using phones, including texting, and road crashes and this national campaign is seeking to re-enforce the offence."
The offence carries an initial fixed penalty of 30, but that amount could rise to as much as 1000 if the case goes to court.
But new legislation contained in the Road Safety Bill, which is expected to be ratified by Westminster in 2006, will soon introduce tougher penalties.
Offenders will be given three penalty points on their licence and the fine will double to 60.
Assistant Chief Constable Ian Learmonth, leader on this issue for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (Acpos), said: "I would urge all drivers not to use their mobile phone whilst they are driving. The dangers, not only to themselves but also to other road users, are obvious.
The law is likely to change soon which will mean if you are caught, points will be added to your licence."
Police have carried out official tests which showed that drivers using mobile phones are slower to make emergency stops than people who are drunk. The campaign will coincide with a television advertising campaign by the Department of Transport to raise awareness of the offence.
Sue Nicholson, head of campaigns for the RAC Foundation, said: "I know that the police do monitor the situation but we'd prefer this kind of campaign to go on all the time.
"I don't think the message is getting through to people and that might not happen until it becomes an endorsable offence. Drivers think 'it's only a fine' and they are also unconvinced that they're going to be caught for it."
The ban on using mobile phones while driving came into force in December 2003 following pressure from police and road safety campaigners.
Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, agreed that Britain should follow the 35 countries, including the United States, who had already made it an offence to use mobiles behind the wheel.
It was expected that the change in the law would lead to the issuing of 100,000 fixed-penalty notices each year and about 5000 prosecutions in court.
In principle, it is not an offence under the legislation to speak "hands-free" as long as the phone is not removed from its "cradle".
But police have additional powers to act if they witness a motorist driving inappropriately even if he is talking hands-free.
Road-safety campaigners welcomed the introduction of fines of up to 1000 for drivers using hand-held mobile phones.
But they criticised the Government for not banning hands-free phones, an omission which was welcomed by some groups.
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