Wider penalties for phone use when driving dropped

Law was intended to punish drivers for using services such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp

The legislation was also intended to address weakness in current laws considered unworkable by gardaí. Photograph: Getty

The legislation was also intended to address weakness in current laws considered unworkable by gardaí. Photograph: Getty

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A plan to introduce new penalties for drivers who allow themselves to be distracted by messaging services including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, has been dropped from legislation before the Oireachtas.

The Road Traffic Bill 2016, which is due before the Seanad this week, originally contained plans to address the issue of drivers using mobile phones or electronic devices to access messaging services or use the internet.

It was also intended the new legislation would address weaknesses in current laws governing texting while driving, some of which are considered unworkable by gardaí.

A spokesman for Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe said time constraints meant the scope of the Bill had been narrowed and the measures around electronic communications were removed.

The offence of driving while texting, introduced in May 2014, remains in force and motorists detected using their mobile while driving can also face prosecution for driving without due care and attention.

The Minister’s spokesperson said the “area of driver distraction caused by electronic devices is one which will need to be revisited. The last primary legislation in this area was in 2006, and technology has advanced a great deal since then.

Revisit matter

“The Minister has committed to revisiting this matter in legislation,” she added.

“The department is consulting further with An Garda Síochána on the best way forward, including consideration of the measures necessary to ensure that the gardaí have the necessary powers to enforce any new measures effectively.”

In May 2014, then minister for transport Leo Varadkar sought to close a loophole that allowed drivers to escape fines and penalties if they were caught texting on a phone resting in a cradle or via a hands-free kit.

In a bid to deter drivers from this activity, the new offence attracted severe penalties, including a mandatory court summons and a fine instead of penalty points.

However, gardaí consider the new law almost unenforceable, and nine months after its introduction not one driver had been prosecuted under it due to complexity of gathering evidence to support a prosecution.

Clear view

The reason for this, gardaí say, is drivers rarely text with a phone in clear view and most hands-free kits are situated low within a vehicle.

This means unless a driver is observed texting while stopped at a junction, it is difficult to obtain enough evidence for a successful prosecution.

A second consideration is that gardaí do not have the powers to seize and examine a mobile phone from someone suspected of texting and driving.

The narrowed scope of the Road Traffic Bill 2016 means it now focuses on three priority areas: drug driving, mutual recognition of driver disqualification with the UK, and the introduction of a 20km/hr special speed limit.

Susan Gray, founder of road safety group Parc, said it was obvious from the start the law around texting in a hands- free kit was unenforceable.

“If gardaí on the ground had been consulted, we would not be in this position now,” Ms Gray said.

“There are lessons to be learned for the future.”

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