New legislation will be introduced into the UK on 1 December aimed at stamping out the potentially dangerous use of mobile devices while driving.
The problem is that many people out there are confused about what exactly the new rules are and how they are likely to be interpreted by the police. In particular, there has been a lot of speculation about the type of equipment that will be 'legal' or otherwise.
Against this background, many equipment retailers have launched promotional campaigns encouraging drivers to invest in technology that will help them avoid prosecution. We have also see coverage in the national press and television news that has been less than precise in terms of the practicalities, leaving readers and viewers even more confused than they were before.
Making sense of the new legislation and what it means is actually very easy, however - so long as you ignore the retailers and most of the media. The trick is to consult the appropriate sources, and the first port of call for anyone wishing to gain an insight is the Department for Transport (DfT) Website (www.dft.gov.uk).
This provides a link on the home page to a four-page Q&A document that explains the situation in plain and simple language. If you want to drill into the actual text of the legislation, a link is provided. In addition, the DfT has summarised the results of its consultation process, which gives a good feel for the rationale used to shape the legislation into the form it has finally taken.
So what does it all mean?
In a nutshell, it will become an offence for someone to hold and operate a mobile device in their hand while they are driving, or to use a device, even if it is fixed in a cradle, for sending or receiving data.
The latter includes emails, text messages, picture messages and accessing the Internet. The legislation also reiterates something that has always been the case, ie. that any use of equipment in a manner that interferes with the driver's proper control of the vehicle can lead to a charge of careless or dangerous driving.
Those with a keen eye will have spotted that the legislation deals with driver behaviour and not the legality or otherwise of specific types of equipment. This is interesting when we look back at some of the retailer campaigns and news stories. Some of these have suggested or implied that all headsets and ear-pieces will be illegal and that fixed hands-free car kits - with the phone wired into the car's power supply and sound system - are necessary for compliance. Others have suggested that headsets are OK, provided they are based on the wireless Bluetooth approach.
Such claims and implications are not only inaccurate, but miss the point. As a spokesperson for the Hampshire Police put it: "There is no such thing as compliant or not-compliant equipment. It has more to do with equipment being used in a safe manner."
The discussion went on to consider that someone taking a call on a phone equipped with a traditional wired ear-piece would not be causing an offence, so long as that phone was anchored to the dashboard and full control of the vehicle was maintained throughout. As soon as they pick up the phone from the cradle, however, or read an incoming text message, they would be liable for prosecution.
Of course, whenever you talk with spokespeople from the Police or the DfT, they reiterate their recommendation that your phone be switched off or diverted to voice mail while you are driving, but they also understand that we are living in the real world so their views are very pragmatic.
If someone feels they have to use the phone whilst driving, the powers that be would much rather they did this safely. For this reason, some view the punting of £150 fixed car kits or £70 Bluetooth headsets by retailers to achieve "compliance" as counter productive. Given the choice between forking out substantial sums or risking getting caught, many will take the risk.
If people realised that all they needed was a cradle costing less than a tenner and the headset that came in the box with their phone, they would be much more likely to comply and drive more safely, which is the whole point.
The bottom line for individuals is that they should think twice about their in-car communication habits before 1 December. The days of holding your PDA in one hand, your phone in the other and the steering wheel between your knees whilst negotiating the M4/M25 interchange are probably over.
Even if you are deluded enough to argue that this was safe, being caught holding even one device will soon lead to an on-the-spot fine or prosecution in the court. And while many would object to a complete ban on mobile phone usage in cars, most of us would probably agree that some drivers have pushed things too far, too often.
But it is not just individuals that must take note. When the new legislation comes into force, it will be an offence for a company to require or encourage employees to use mobile phones whilst driving. Companies that have not yet updated their guidelines and policies should do so very quickly.
As for the equipment manufacturers and retailers, the legislation means that Christmas is likely to come early this year. Regardless of the actual need for new equipment, many drivers are likely to take advantage of the situation to justify that expensive car kit or cool-looking (?) Bluetooth headset to their boss, spouse or even themselves.
Most responsible road warriors, however, are likely to remain relatively unaffected and the same is probably true of the revenue stream they represent for mobile operators as they run their businesses from the Britain's motorways. The risk these people run, apart from the obvious ongoing potential distraction, is that their call records may be checked and used in evidence if they have an accident and phone-related carelessness is suspected.
From a technology industry point of view, the only snag we can see is with the 3G-enabled in-car stereos that have been on the drawing board for some time now. The question is whether initiating the streaming of the latest Robbie Williams track over the mobile network will be considered illegal data access? Then again, every cloud... ®