Plan for increased fines welcome, but highlight Stormont failure
AN entirely sensible proposal that there should be tougher penalties for drivers caught using a hand-held mobile phone while on the road has been announced for public consultation.
There is little controversial about the plan. Using a mobile phone while driving is a self-evidently dangerous practice.
Accidents, injury and even death are highly conceivable outcomes when a driver is distracted.
Yesterday's announcement by the Department for Infrastructure also serves to emphasise how poorly served the public is by the continuing absence - now into its fourteenth month - of a government and executive ministers at Stormont.
Even if the proposals garner a favourable response - which would seem highly likely - the department will not be able to enact them immediately.
Rather, as the introduction to the consultation puts it: "The responses will be used to put proposals to an incoming infrastructure minister, who will make a decision on the way forward."
With the spectacular implosion of talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin last month, the prospect of a locally elected minister being in a position to make a decision in any Stormont department in the foreseeable future seems, at best, remote.
At the moment, a driver found with a mobile phone in their hand while at the wheel can have three penalty points added to their licence and be given a £60 fixed penalty.
Given that there is evidence that hand-held mobile phone use is actually on the increase, some have questioned just how much of a practical deterrent this is.
The proposals announced yesterday aim to address this.
If they get the go ahead, mobile phone offenders would have a £200 fine and six penalty points imposed upon them, bringing Northern Ireland into line with Britain.
The logic appears sound. If the increased fine does not concentrate the minds of would-be offenders, then the prospect of six penalty points ought to; a total of 12 penalty points on a licence within a three-year period is generally the threshold for disqualification from driving.
It means that a driver will need to be caught texting or checking Facebook just twice before losing their licence, rather than four times under the current legislation.
In the Republic, where there is a fine of €80 with three penalty points, mobile phone use by drivers has been described by the AA as "ridiculously high" - even with a mandatory court appearance and a fine of up to €1,000 for those caught texting or emailing.
Work on mutually recognising penalty points on both sides of the border is underway.
This, too, will require legislation if it is to be put into practice - another area in which the public is being let down by its MLAs.