The precedent is set: texting drivers may be jailed. Good employers will ensure their staff are educated about safe driving practices

Lord Ahmed’s jail sentence following his involvement in a fatal car crash on the M1 may have come as no surprise to many people – after all, the Labour peer had been texting at the wheel in the immediate lead-up to the collision. The sentencing judge made clear, however, that the texting had had no bearing on the accident. There was little chance to avoid the other car, which was blocking the outside lane of the motorway after hitting the central reservation.

Lord Ahmed was jailed for 12 weeks because he had sent and received five text messages while driving in the dark, apparently within the speed limit. This was deemed sufficiently dangerous in itself to necessitate a prison sentence.

The judge, Mr Justice Wilkie, told Sheffield Crown Court: “It is of the greatest importance that people realise what a serious offence dangerous driving of this type is… by reason of the prolonged, deliberate, repeated and highly dangerous driving for which you have pleaded guilty, only an immediate custodial sentence can be justified.”

The peer was freed after 16 days when the Court of Appeal accepted his lawyers’ argument that his community work would be “irreparably damaged” if he remained in prison. The appeal court backed Mr Justice Wilkie, however, saying that he “had had no option but to impose a custodial sentence” because of the seriousness of Lord Ahmed’s offence.

What is dangerous driving? Section 2A(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 provides that a person is to be regarded as driving dangerously if:

a) the way he or she drives falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver; and

b) it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.

The test thus concentrates on the nature of the driving rather than the motorist’s mental state. The driver does not need to mean to drive badly – the test is objective. Examples of such behaviour include a motorist driving at 119mph on a motorway, driving a badly corroded vehicle, and a diabetic motorist, aware there was a real risk of a hypoglycaemic attack, driving on regardless.

The aim of the dangerous driving legislation is to make roads safer for all those that use them. The relatively recent advent of widespread mobile phone use has added a new set of distractions for the average motorist. Lord Ahmed’s case emphasised that the mere act of sending and receiving text messages while at the wheel of a vehicle is sufficiently serious to warrant a custodial sentence.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said: “Texting requires you to take your eyes off the road, your hands off the controls and your mind off driving, and this is what makes it so dangerous, particularly when it’s carried out over a prolonged period of time.”

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to take steps to ensure the safety of workers and others who may be affected by their activities when at work. This includes the time when they are driving at work, whether this is in a company or hired vehicle, or in the employees’ own vehicles.

Good employers will, therefore, offer guidance to their staff about what constitutes safe driving. A good basis is the Health and Safety Executive document Driving at work – Managing work-related road safety, which is available free on the HSE website ( Driving policies should reflect road traffic laws and the seriousness of breaking them.

Lord Ahmed’s lawyer said that the peer had been punished unduly harshly as an example. The courts’ message is clear, however: drive while distracted at your peril.