At least ten persons spoke to me on Thursday last about the new cellphone law that is to take effect in the new year. Most had no idea what the law is about and when it is to be actually effective. Some wanted to know how come there had been no parliamentary debate on the law; they had heard none.
It is a regulation
The first thing to appreciate is that the new law is not a separate Act but comprises a set of regulations made under the Motor Vehicle and Road Traffic Act. That Act, in section 100, permits the relevant Minister to make regulations for, among other things, "the safety, control and regulation of traffic and use of vehicles" on the road. This is a power that was delegated to the Minister in the main Act and such regulations do not need parliamentary debate or approval. They are still law although referred to as "delegated" legislation.
Over time various regulations have been passed and there are now a couple of hundred regulations and many sub-regulations. They deal with all manner of things such traffic signals, overtaking, parking and the like. Now they also deal with the use of cell-phones while driving.
What it says
The new law is called the Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic (Mobile Devices) Regulations 2010. It creates three new traffic offences. First, it is provided as follows:
"No person shall drive or have charge of a motor vehicle on any road while holding or using a hand- held mobile device."
Mobile device means a mobile telephone or other device which performs interactive communication function by transmitting and receiving data. This additional prohibition is possibly meant to include any further variations of cellphones in the future that might not strictly be deemed "mobile" telephones. Breach of this regulation renders a person liable to a fine of $1,500 or three months imprisonment.
Driving instructors cannot escape by claiming they were not driving. The law covers persons "supervising" the holder of a provisional permit.
In addition there is now a prohibition against any person viewing or sending text messages while driving. The specific regulation states:
"No person shall use a wireless communication device to view, send or compose an electronic message while driving or having charge of a vehicle."
A "wireless communication device" means a device used to transfer information over a distance without the use of electrical conductors or wires. A cellphone transmitting text messages is obviously such a device. The penalty for this breach is also a fine of $1,500 or three months imprisonment.
The law however specifically exempts use of mobile telephone on the road once it is in "hands-free mode". It also does not apply when the vehicle is off the road/parked and not in motion and not impeding traffic. It will thus still apply if the vehicle is stopped and off the road but is in motion. In other words turn off the engine.
Further the law does not apply to the driver of an ambulance, fire service or police service vehicle. Note, it applies to ambulance drivers, fire officers and police officers when they are driving in private capacity. When such a person is actually driving such a vehicle, however, i.e. ambulance or fire/police service vehicle, he is exempt. The law also allows the Minister to exempt certain persons or classes of persons that he prescribes.
There has been a lot of concern as to when the new law will come into effect. The law is published as Legal Notice No. 281 in the Official Gazette of November 18, 2010. Publication in the Gazette is required before a statutory instrument [which regulations are] is effective, as specified in section 12 of the Statutes Act. That Act also states that a statutory instruments will come into operation on the date of publication unless a later or earlier date is prescribed in the instrument.
Interestingly enough this 2010 law itself provides at regulation 2:
"These regulations shall come into effect three months from the date of publication."
Given that the date of publication is November 18, 2010 three months later would be February 18, 2011. Since one does not count the actual date of publication in computation of time the three months therefore will end of February 18 and so the law comes into effect on February 19, 2011.
A new order made under the "Ticket" Act permits tickets to be given for these traffic breaches instead of a full charge. If a ticket is issued and paid the penalty is a flat $1,000. If not paid then the matter is treated as a regular traffic charge before the courts.
The New Year brings with it another facet of government regulation of social behaviour following the Breathalyser and tobacco laws. Hopefully these will contribute to a better quality of life in T&T.
• Dana S Seetahal is a former