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40,000 drivers caught using mobile phone at the wheel in Northern Ireland

By Adrian Rutherford

More than 40,000 drivers have been caught using their mobile phone at the wheel in the last five years, shocking figures have revealed.

Police are catching 22 offenders every day - despite repeated warnings about the dangers.

It comes just weeks after a man was jailed for killing a pensioner after crashing while browsing the Gumtree website on his phone.

Edward Devlin was jailed for just 13 months for causing the death of Ian Leonard Bailie in 2014.

It put the issue back under the spotlight in Northern Ireland, following a recent toughening up of the law in England and Wales.

Drivers here are currently given three penalty points and a £60 fine for using a phone at the wheel. But last night there were calls for greater punishment.

DUP MLA Lord Morrow said: "The message needs to be firmly brought home.

"If people are to become more aware of their actions and how they could impact on others and be less selfish, then the penalty needs to be significant."

Police made 41,013 detections for mobile phone use while driving from January 2011 to December 2015.

The figures were released after a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph.

Mobile phones were directly to blame for 37 accidents in that period in which someone was injured. Two people were killed, while 11 others suffered a serious injury.

Despite thousands of drivers being caught every year, there are concerns that many more are evading punishment.

Lord Morrow, an MLA for Fermanagh-South Tyrone, added: "Every day, without fail, I encounter drivers either talking on a phone or texting.

"Watching drivers trying to navigate one-handed at, for example, roundabouts, with a phone pressed to their ear or their eyes downward to the screen, is both frightening and concerning."

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan, who sits on the Policing Board, said he feared the 40,000 total represents only "the tip of the iceberg".

He referred to proposals announced yesterday by Westminster which could see drivers who cause death by dangerous or careless driving get life in prison. Motorists who cause death while on a mobile phone are among those who could face longer sentences.

Mr McCrossan added: "The use of mobile phones while driving is illegal for a reason - they can distract drivers and cause injury or even death to drivers, passengers or pedestrians.

"The Westminster Government have announced proposals to increase the maximum penalty for life for dangerous drivers who kill on our roads.

"Mobile phone usage is included within these proposals, along with intoxication and drug use. That's how serious this issue has become.

"We need a rethink in the law in Northern Ireland, too, in terms of maximum sentencing, as it is seemingly the case that public campaigns are simply not doing enough."

In September it was announced that drivers caught using mobile phones in Britain would be hit with double fines and points. Drivers will get six points on their licence and face a £200 fine under the proposals.

In October Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard said he had asked officials to review Northern Ireland's legislation.

He said: "I want to make the use of a mobile phone while driving as socially unacceptable as not wearing a seatbelt and as shameful as drink driving."

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