Hanging on the telephone – has anyone got it right on the new ban on text driving?

[Updated 1/5/14] The ban on texting while driving comes into effect tomorrow (1 May 2014). There has been some confusion about what exactly it prohibits but the best advice, from a practical and legal point of view, is simple: don’t use a mobile phone while driving.

Texting While Driving

Holding a mobile phone while driving was prohibited by the Road Traffic Act 2006. The Act allowed the Minister for Transport to introduce regulations restricting or prohibiting the use in vehicles of mobile phones, in-vehicle communication devices, information equipment or entertainment equipment. Minister Leo Varadkar has now done so in respect of what can loosely be called “texting”.

The 2014 Regulations prohibit sending or reading text messages while driving. There appears to be much confusion about this new law. It bans reading and sending texts while driving and clarifies that:

  • a “text message” includes an SMS, MMS or email;
  • “read” includes access or open, but not by voice-activation;
  • “send” includes compose and type “but does not include anything done without touching the mobile phone”.

There is a peculiarity in the difference in language between “read” and “send”. The former uses the phrase “voice-activation” and the latter “without touching the mobile phone”. The 2006 Act (the parent legislation of the Regulations), however, uses the phrase “hands-free device” which is one “designed so that when used in conjunction with a mobile phone there is no need for the user to hold the phone by hand”. The 2014 Regulations should be consistent with section 3 of the 2006 Act and it would have been better to use the phrase “hands-free device”.

(As an aside: the 2006 Act defines “hold” as meaning “holding the phone by hand or supporting or cradling it with another part of the body”, so the various contortions drivers sometimes resort to are pointless.)

The peculiarity in the language of the 2014 Regulations appears to me not to account for how phones are used. For example, you could read a message by voice activation by requesting Siri to read a message. However, to activate Siri you must press a button either on an iPhone or a built-in Bluetooth system. In the case of the former, therefore, the user must touch the mobile phone. Do the 2014 Regulations allow this for reading a message but not for sending one? Voice activation systems generally require at least one button to be pushed before being used. It does not necessarily mean that this will be a fruitful source of technical challenges, but it is inconsistent.

You might be inclined to think that the repeated use of the phrase “mobile phone” limits the law, but the 2006 Act defines a mobile phone as “a portable communication device, other than a two-way radio, with which a person is capable of making or receiving a call or performing an interactive communication function”. So, the legislation appears to cover a tablet with a sim card, for example.

The 2006 Act provides two defences: using the phone to call emergency services or acting in response to a genuine emergency.

[Updated] Media reports about the law are confusing. This morning (1/5/14) I heard various radio reports that the law prohibits “accessing information using a phone” (it’s not that wide) and sending a text message, even using a handsfree kit (it doesn’t appear to). The confusion is compounded by this explanatory note from the Department of Transport (brought to my attention by Steve White in a comment below). It says:

These regulations apply to mobile phones which are not being held, i.e. to hands-free devices.

This is not quite correct – the Regulations apply to any communications device which fits the definition of a “mobile phone” in the 2006 Act. The reference to hands-free devices is significantly confusing – the Regulations appear to allow the use of handsfree devices, but this note says the Regulations apply to them. What I assume the Department means is that the Regulations apply to the use of mobile phones when not being held. The note goes on to compound the confusion:

Contrary to some misleading media reports, they do not make it an offence to speak via a hands-free device. Nor do they make it an offence to touch a button on a hand-free device in order to answer a phone call.

The penalties involved are a source of confusion, to me at least. Reports by the Irish Times and RTÉ refer to fines of €1,000 for a first offence and €2,000 for the second as well as a possible jail term of up to 12 months. I don’t know where these penalties come from as they are not contained in the 2014 Regulations and section 3 of the 2006 Act does not provide for them. This appears to come from the Departmental note linked to earlier, which refers to these penalties on the basis that the Regulations come under the “general penalty” in section 102 of the Road Traffic Act 1961. Section 102 applies to an offence in the Road Traffic Acts for which “no penalty is provided for the offence”. However, the 2006 Act says that the penalty for holding a phone or other offences made by regulation is a Class C fine (maximum €2,500). Therefore, section 3 provides for a penalty and I do not see how the general penalty in section 102 of the 1961 Act arises.

Holding a mobile phone is a penalty points offence which now results in 3 penalty points on payment of a fine or 5 on conviction in court. (As with all penalty point offences, the judge has no discretion and they automatically follow a conviction.) Texting while driving is not a penalty points offence.

There has been much hand-wringing and concern about whether or not the 2014 Regulations prohibit the use of Google Maps or Hailo, for example. They don’t, but this does not mean that drivers should feel free to use non-texting functions of their phones while driving – holding a mobile phone (which could include a tablet) while driving remains prohibited, whatever the use it is being put to. Moreover, offences of dangerous and careless driving and driving without due care and attention could cover a wide range of bad driving, and could include, for example, driving while zooming in and out of maps on your phone or sending stickers on WhatsApp.

PS: The 2014 Regulations do not apply to “a person to whom section 3(1)” of the 2006 Act applies. Section 3(1) provides for the offence of driving while holding a mobile phone. Section 3(2) exempts Gardaí and emergency services personnel on duty from the prohibition, so I assume the 2014 Regulations are in error and intended to refer to section 3(2).

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