Drivers caught texting and using mobiles or smartphones, even if they are on a hands-free kit, will be given a mandatory court summons and a fine instead of just penalty points under new road safety regulations.
The new rules, which come into effect from May 1st, mean anyone caught texting or “accessing information” on their phones will face a mandatory court appearance and a fine of up to €1,000 for a first offence.
This will rise to a maximum of €2,000 for a second offence, and a possible three-month jail sentence, along with a €2,000 fine, for three offences or more within a 12-month period.
A spokesman for Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar said texting while driving is considered a serious enough offence to warrant a mandatory court appearance, which would rank it alongside drink- and drug-driving.
There will be no on-the-spot fines or immediate penalty points for anyone caught texting, as there are for some offences on a lesser scale, even though a judge can subsequently apply points as well as fines.
However, penalty points could be applied on the scene by a garda for the parallel offence of using a mobile phone.
Three penalty points are currently added to a driving licence, as well as an on-the-spot fine of as much as €90 for someone caught using a phone.
Department of Transport sources said penalty points are seen as a lesser offence to mandatory court appearances, and it was felt a summons, coupled with a “severe financial penalty” would be a more effective deterrent.
Texting while driving has not been made a specific penalty points offence for that reason.
"There will be no option to take the points," a department spokesman said. "There is no grace period, you go straight to court." Mr Varadkar yesterday signed a new amendment to existing legislation into law, which brings the new measures into effect next month.
While it was already illegal to text while driving, the changes will close off a loophole which could allow people to escape fines and penalties if they were operating a phone resting in a cradle or via a hands-free kit.
Conor Faughnan of AA Roadwatch said the move would not be the "last word" in this area since drivers could continually "fiddle on smart devices of all sorts".