Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe has defended dropping plans to outlaw all use of electronic devices while driving, saying the legislation as proposed would have been too easily challenged in court.
Legal experts in his department are now struggling to find a way to prohibit use of hands-free phones and other gadgets while permitting the use of touch-screen car stereos and other digital displays that are now in-built in newer car models.
The new Road Traffic Bill had intended prohibiting all uses of hands-free electronic devices with gardaí due to be given powers to issue fixed charge notices carrying an automatic three penalty points and a €60 fine.
All use of hand-held devices as well as texting or emailing on hands-free devices is already against the law.
However, that still leaves motorists free to speak on hands-free devices and to use swipe technology to read messages or maps which road safety experts say distracts from safe driving.
Mr Donohoe said he made the decision to drop the section covering electronic devices so as not to delay progress on the remainder of the bill, which also tightens up drug-driving legislation and provides for mutual recognition of driver disqualification between Ireland and the UK.
“As we were doing the work in relation to drafting the text to expand the definition of mobile phones and mobile devices, we hit a number of difficulties,” he explained.
“More and more cars now have digital screens built into them including many of them that are touchpads that allow people to change the radio and maybe get routes for places they are going.
“How do you differentiate between somebody using a device in that manner and say, changing radio stations, but then using it in such a way that they become distracted? How do we deal with that in law and how do we put that in front of our courts in such a way that it doesn’t cause unintended difficulties?”
Mr Donohoe told Newstalk Radio that road traffic legislation was the most challenged kind of law in this country and the new provisions had to be robust enough to withstand court challenges.
He pledged to continue working on drafting law to end the use of electronic devices other than those covering basic car functions and said there was consensus in the Dáil on the importance of the proposed restrictions.
However, the PARC road safety campaign group questioned how effective existing restrictions were in relation to hands-free devices.
Founder Susan Gray said: “If you’re holding a mobile phone, gardaí are doing a very good job of enforcement, but anything to do with a hands-free kit, they can’t enforce that. It’s impossible to prove.”
More than 23,000 drivers received fixed charge notices in the first 10 months of last year in relation to illegal use of devices, which Ms Gray described as being at “epidemic” levels.
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