Mobiles go off-road

LONDON (12/01/2003) - Monday marks the introduction of new U.K. laws that make driving while using a handheld mobile phone an offense.

Motorists caught chatting on a handset will face fines up to a maximum of £1,000 (US$1,721) -- although most will be slapped with an on-the-spot penalty of £30. However, the government has plans to increase this to £60 and make the offense carry three penalty points.

"It is now illegal to use a handheld phone while driving. The vast majority of motorists (it) is dangerous and I hope today's ban will make the roads a safer place," said David Jamieson, Road Safety Minister.

But while some drivers are unsure exactly what constitutes a hands-free kit under the new law -- the use of headsets is prohibited; instead the handset must be dashboard-mounted -- many more are completely unaware the legislation even exists. A study by Tesco revealed that nine out of 10 motorists didn't know about the changes.

It is expected that police will be lenient for the first few months, letting initial offenders off with just a warning.

Alarmingly, reports from The Automobile Association place concerns on the safety of hands-free kits. Its research shows that drivers are four times more likely to have an accident while driving even if they're using a hands-free kit.

the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has led the campaign to outlaw the use of mobiles at the wheel and knows of more than 20 deaths on Britain's roads involving mobile phones -- hands-free phones were being used when at least two of those tragedies occurred.

Our advice: turn off your phone when driving and pull over if you need to take a call.

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