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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 February, 2005, 12:13 GMT
What can drivers do at the wheel?

Almost half of all motorists say they have been distracted while at the wheel by in-car gadgets, and thousands admit near misses as a result. So what can you do and not do while in the driving seat?

The wealth of in-car accessories and gadgets has made life more pleasant for motorists but also potentially more dangerous.

The pinnacle of in-car gadgetry used to be a built-in radio, complete with pre-set buttons for switching between stations, and perhaps even a cassette player.

By comparison, the average new car today looks more like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise, such is the wealth of flashing buttons and beeping lights.

Among the gadgets familiar to today's drivers are:

  • CD players, with auto-changers which can handle several discs at once
  • Digital music players, which can be played through the car stereo
  • Mobile phones with hands-free kits
  • PDAs - personal digital assistants
  • Satellite navigation devices
  • Route planners
  • In-car DVD players

Some drivers are taking this gadgetry fetish even further, with worrying results. Last year a young motorist was banned after police discovered he had built a Playstation console into his dashboard.

But the more gadgets a driver has to hand, the more he or she risks being distracted from what's happening on the road.

So what can drivers do?

MOBILE PHONES

Driving while holding a mobile phone is an offence automatically punishable with a 30 fine. Moves are afoot to increase this in 2005 to an automatic fine of 60 and three penalty points on a licence. The law covers all gadgets which send or receive data electronically, which could include PDAs and GPS navigation systems. It is however, OK for drivers to use a phone which is not handheld, such as one held in a cradle. In theory, drivers can also text or tap away at their PDAs - as long as they are secured - although it could lead to one of the charges below.

CAR STEREOS/DIGITAL MUSIC PLAYERS

Jeremy Clarkson
Experienced drivers know to devote all attention to the road
Unlike mobiles, there is no such strict liability governing car stereos, MP3 players, or indeed any device which doesn't send or receive data electronically. Instead, drivers operating these gadgets can do so as long as they continue to drive safely (except for some circumstances, see below). But such gizmos can be a distraction and if a motorist's attention wanders, and their driving falls "below" the standard required, he or she could be guilty of "careless driving" - punishable with a fine of up to 2,500 and a mandatory endorsement of three to nine penalty points.

Tuning a car radio, reading a map and lighting a cigarette are all examples of what could amount to careless driving. But the act itself is not an offence, it's how the driver handles the car. If a driver's attention falls "far below" the standard required, they could be guilty of the more serious offence of "dangerous driving" (punishable with a fine of up to 5,000 and/or six months in prison), or worse, death by dangerous driving.

EATING AN APPLE

But even motorists driving safely can be penalised if they're doing something the police regard as compromising their control of the vehicle. The case of Sarah McCaffery, who was fined 60 last month for holding an apple while negotiating a corner in her Ford Ka, raised many eyebrows. It followed that of Kevin Storey who was fined 20 in 2000 for eating a Kit Kat while driving (he was eventually let off).

These fixed penalties apply to the least serious driving offences and are based on a driver "not being in proper control of [their] vehicle" But again it's down to the discretion of a police officer as to whether a motorist can eat, smoke or twiddle their car stereo while driving safely.


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