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UK gov moves to ban mobile phones, inc Bluetooth, in cars

But good news for the motor industry, methinks...

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Over at the BBC our old friend Nick Hunn of TDK Systems is chirruping that motor manufacturers are moving mountains to get Bluetooth into their cars for next year, in anticipation of government crack-downs on use of mobile phones while driving. Which is a funny coincidence, because according to proposals for legislation from the UK Department of Transport, using Bluetooth phones is going to be largely illegal.

In its consultation paper on the proposed offence of using a mboile phone while driving, the DoT effectively outlaws anything that isn't wired or plugged into the vehicle, and specifically rules out all hand-held phones, "whether using a wire, or wireless, connection" (Annex A, sections 8 and 9).

The DoT's thinking seems to be that all mobile phone use is distracting for drivers, even hands-free. However, it thinks a ban on hands-free would be unenforceable, so it isn't going to do that. In which case, Bluetooth hands free should be OK, right?

Wrong. "We do not consider that the phone needs to be physically held in a driver's hand in order to commit an offence. This would prohibit the use of hand-held phones used with an earphone and microphone whether using a wired, or wireless, connection. Even though they can be used 'hands-free' to some extent, these still require the user to hold the phone in order to press buttons [not necessarily] or to read a message on the phone's screen."

Traditional-design in-car systems are nicked too - "those types of car phones that are permanently wired into the vehicle but require hand operation (e.g. telephone style handset that needs to be held up to the ear/mouth)." The proposed offence will cover all cases of phone use while the engine is switched on, and will also make it an offence to "cause or permit" use of a handheld phone while driving, so employers are covered too.

Under what circumstances, then, will it be permitted to use a phone while driving? "We believe that a hands-free phone would be one that did not require the driver to significantly alter their position in relation to the steering wheel in order to use it. It should be permanently wired into the vehicle and use one or more speakers permanently fixed in the vehicle; or be plugged into a unit in the vehicle (commonly a cradle on the dashboard) thereby directly connecting it to fixed speaker(s) in the vehicle."

This actually sounds like pretty good motivation for the motor industry to be going bald-headed for getting mobile phone systems into their cars ASAP, because as soon as it's illegal to use handheld units, even ones you're not holding, the "permanently fixed" or "plugged into" phone becomes the only game in town. Yum, say the accessories vendors. This doesn't altogether rule out Bluetooth, but does kind of undermine its point - if you've got to have the phone plugged into the car, running through the car's speakers, then what are you going to use wireless for?

The document seems not to specifically outlaw a Bluetooth headset when used with one of its approved in-vehicle systems, but you can see the difficulties for the police it this were permitted. Legally, you'll be able to rant away, apparently to yourself, in your car, and the plod won't trouble you. But if they see you muttering into a piece of gear on your head, then that provides them with an easy differentiation. And even if it is legal, you'll get pretty sick of being pulled over, if the police enforce the law. If.

The DoT's reasoning for differentiating between hard-wired/plugged and a headset and handset combination, where the handset could easily be in the glovebox or a bag in the back, is more than a little stretched, to say the least. Nor does it examine in any detail the application of the existing law, which covers failing to have proper control of a vehicle, and is subject to a spot fine of £30 or worse. Says the DoT "the police can, and do, prosecute drivers using their existing powers." Not, we would suggest, to any great extent - systematically hit any major junction in London during rush hour and the money would positively roll in.

One might also query what it is that currently stops the police from dealing with people using mobile phones, and what effective difference the proposed legislation will make to that situation. Now, it's an offence to be not paying full attention to what you're doing on the road - which (observe the next driver using a mobile) effectively means it's an offence to use a mobile phone. In the future, it'll be an offence to use a mobile phone, so plus ca change. And why is it the police say they don't stop people for this, and numerous other traffic offences? Manpower, as always. (Thanks to Tim Thornton for the links for this piece). ®

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