A landmark court case in the UK could have far reaching ramifications for fleet OH&S legislation around the globe as a company director became the first person in Britain to be convicted of careless driving over the use of a mobile phone.
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The call to ban business fleet mobile phone use (be it hand held or hands free) whilst driving comes after a business woman was involved in a crash that caused the death of a fellow motorist whilst using a hands-free mobile phone.

Although found not guilty of causing death by dangerous driving, an offence that carries a possible jail sentence, she was convicted on the lesser charge of careless driving, banned from driving for 12 months and fined £2,000 ($4,500 AUD).

Similar to Australian law, only the use of a hand-held mobile phone while driving is against the law in the UK, but some motoring groups have argued that using a hands-free mobile phone is equally dangerous with UK Department for Transport research revealing that using a mobile behind the wheel makes drivers four times more likely to have a crash.

The court heard that the businesswoman had been involved in a mobile phone conversations on her hands-free mobile phone with a work colleague at the time of the accident in February 2008.

She was travelling some 30km/h below the posted speed limit when the prosecution claimed she became distracted by the conversation and veered on to the wrong side of the road and in to an oncoming car. The driver of the other vehicle died at the scene.

Although it is legal to use a hands-free mobile phone while driving, the prosecution claimed that the telephone calls distracted her enough to justify a death by dangerous driving charge.

"If a road crash occurs whether a person is using a hand-held or hands-free phone is irrelevant. The issue is whether the telephone conversation was sufficient to cause the driver to be distracted from concentrating on driving," said Lawyer and legal advisor David Faithful. "I believe this is the first case where a conviction has been obtained as a result of a hands-free mobile phone conversation. The verdict sets a clear precedent and has a significant impact for the entire fleet industry and business community.

"It is not just drivers who could find themselves prosecuted as a consequence of road crash caused as a result of a distracting phone conversation. If the conversation is work-related then their employer’s mobile phone policy will be examined by crash investigators. If there is no policy or it is not being managed effectively then the company could also be charged with offences."

Had the crash occurred after the introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act in April 2008, then prosecutors may have considered pressing charges under that law.

Mr Faithful warned companies, "All drivers are at risk of being prosecuted if they use any mobile phone and crash. Additionally, if the call is work-related the employer could be prosecuted either because of their failure to have any mobile phone policy or failure to manage and monitor adherence to it.

"Fleets should manage and monitor as much as possible and best practice should mean that the use of any mobile phone is banned while driving. Staff should be told to switch off before they drive off or go to voicemail and listen to their messages later when parked in a safe place with the vehicle engine turned off."

Caroline Scurr, director of the ‘Driving for Better Business’ campaign, added "This court case should serve as a warning to every private and public sector fleet in the country that driving and mobile phone use are a lethal cocktail. Every fleet should consider if their current mobile phone policies are tough enough in the light of this incident. Too many drivers are still putting themselves and others in danger for the sake of a phone call."