PROSECUTORS have abandoned more than 1,000 court cases against motorists accused of driving while using a mobile phone, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
The drivers either refused or failed to pay the 30 fixed penalty, but instead of being taken to court they have been offered a second chance to pay a fine or given the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist.
Scottish police have handed out around 13,000 penalties in the 16 months since the law was changed, but evidence is growing the courts are struggling to cope with the one in seven drivers who refuse to pay fines.
Scotland on Sunday understands that in addition to the 1,100 dropped cases, a further 625 drivers have been summoned to court, several hundred of whom are stuck in a backlog.
Road safety campaigners have warned that the new law is widely flouted and the situation will get worse unless tougher enforcement action is taken.
The law was introduced across the UK in December 2003 and made it an offence to use a mobile phone while driving without a hands-free kit. The ban was introduced amid mounting concern over accidents caused by drivers using their mobiles.
Figures from Scotland’s eight police forces show that 13,200 fixed-penalty fines had been handed out by the end of March this year, an average of 28 a day.
The Crown Office says 1,825 drivers have been reported to the prosecutors, the vast majority for failing to pay their fines. Some 625 cases have been sent to court, but the authorities cannot say how many of these have been dealt with. Eighty-eight cases have yet to be decided.
The remaining 1,112 were either given a second chance to pay a fine or given a written fiscal warning.
Isobel Brydie, spokeswoman for the Scottish Campaign Against Irresponsible Driving, said: "This doesn’t surprise me. I can only assume [the cases aren’t going through the courts] to save court time and that’s not a good enough reason.
"There’s no point bringing in legislation if it’s not going to be enforced properly. We’re still seeing people every day on the road using mobile phones while driving and they’re going to continue to do so if the courts fail to deal with it.
"I feel we’re playing catch-up in terms of legislation anyway. The legislation should have been introduced years ago before the advent of extensive mobile phone use.
"The failure of the courts to deal with these issues of irresponsible driving is a great disappointment. These cases can result in injuries and fatalities. Some day it will be too late."
Stewart Stevenson, the SNP’s deputy justice spokesman, said: "The numbers of people being either given a warning or another chance to pay the fine clearly raises worries over whether this law is being enforced strictly enough. This law was introduced because of a number of serious and tragic accidents involving mobile phones while driving and intended to save people’s lives. It is not a trivial issue."
Stevenson also rounded on drivers who continue to flout the law despite the risks.
He said: "The bottom line is that they can buy a plug-in headset for about 10 which will save them getting fined and will allow them to drive safely. And it’s a disgrace that drivers still break the law."
A senior police insider added that some officers would regard a fiscal warning as getting off lightly. He said: "I think that there will be some officers who will feel that they have gone to a lot of effort for not very much. It’s not like people don’t know they shouldn’t use their phones while they drive."
A spokeswoman for the Crown Office denied that offenders were being allowed to get off lightly.
She said: "The law is being enforced. Prosecutors are given discretion as to how to handle individual cases. Fiscals use warnings where it is appropriate to do so in the public interest. Only a tiny number of cases, 57 of the 1,825 reported charges while using mobile phones while driving were dealt with by a warning."
Although ministers intended to bring in tougher laws, which would have increased the fines and added penalty points to offenders’ licences, the plans were ditched earlier this month when the UK Parliament - which regulates traffic law - broke up for the general election.
Last September, a driver who smashed his van into a pensioner’s vehicle while talking on his mobile phone was jailed. Alan Milbanke, from North Tyneside, had been chatting to a colleague on a dangerous stretch of road when he lost control of his van near Hexham in Northumberland.