12,000 drivers caught using mobile phones
MORE than 12,000 drivers were fined for using their mobile phones at the wheel in Scotland last year, as a police clampdown saw the number of penalties issued soar by 60 per cent.
Scotland's biggest police force, Strathclyde, gave 6,924 motorists 30 fixed penalties for using phones while driving, compared with 4,777 in 2004.
Officers have previously been accused of not doing enough to tackle the problem. A survey by the RAC in November 2004 showed as many as four in ten motorists admitted to using their phones behind the wheel.
At the time, Susie Haywood, an RAC spokeswoman, said: "The only reason we can conclude is that people have tried to see how many people are being caught and realised there just aren't enough police on the roads."
Police admitted last night that they adopted a "softly softly" approach in the first months of the ban, but had since adopted a much tougher stance.
In Fife, the number of fines issued in 2005 was 555 - a rise of 137 per cent on the 235 in 2004.
In Dumfries and Galloway, the increase was even bigger. In 2004, 152 fines were issued. Last year there were 477 - a 214 per cent rise. In Lothian and Borders, 3,406 tickets were issued up until October last year.
Chief Inspector Joe Swanston, head of road policing in Fife, said: "The legislation came in at the end of 2003, so in 2004 there was a relaxation of enforcement to get with the programme, but in 2005 it was built into the core duties of the road policing unit.
"Everything we do now is focused on casualty prevention and obviously mobile-phone use by drivers is a danger."
Motorists who continue to break the law will face tougher penalties - 60 fines and three penalty points - under legislation going through Westminster.
In six of Scotland's eight forces where up-to-date annual figures were available, the number of fines rose from 7,563 to 12,017 - up 59 per cent. The surge means nearly 1 per cent of motorists in Scotland have been fined for phone use since December 2003, when the law came in.
Road safety campaigners welcomed increased police efforts to crack down on "callous" motorists who are putting their lives, and others, at risk. But they warned that the number of people caught, while rising, was "just the tip of the iceberg" and called for the ban to be extended to hands-free sets.
Roger Vincent, of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said: "We have seen a number of deaths caused by people using their phones at the wheel. We welcome the increased enforcement but the number of people stopped is just the tip of the iceberg.
"People are four times more likely to crash if they are using a mobile phone, both hands-free and hand-held sets. It's the conversation that draws people in and causes the danger, rather than holding the phone itself."
A spokesman for Northern Constabulary said: "There used to be two to three penalties issued per week but that number has gradually increased."
The Department of Transport said there were no plans to ban the use of hands-free sets.
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