Distracted message on driver mobile phone use

The Distracted Driver (US Style). Photo flickr: credit Steve Mays

Distracted message on driver mobile phone use

Clamping down on driver mobile phone use: by catching fewer offenders, sending them for retraining, disqualifying fewer drivers and ignoring other distraction risks. Roll up to read the Government’s new Road Safety Statement!

Road safety rhetoric, plans and statements

On 17 December, the Government unexpectedly announced their intention to publish what was described as a ‘Road Safety Plan’, something CTC and road safety campaign groups had heard rumours existed, but had not previously been consulted about.

Over the weekend, various newspapers subsequently reported the Government’s proposed introduction of tougher penalties for drivers using mobile phones, heralded as a clampdown on those drivers and the ‘centrepiece’ of their new plan.

On Monday afternoon, the Department for Transport (DfT) then published a  Road Safety Statement (the Statement), setting out their vision, values and priorities for improving the safety of Britain’s roads, with their proposals on dangerous in-car mobile phone use highlighted as the first of their short and medium term priorities. This was our first opportunity to check whether the proposals matched the rhetoric.

Increasing penalties but decreasing prosecutions

Any measures to increase the penalties for mobile phone use by drivers are to be welcomed, except that the penalties are largely irrelevant if there is limited enforcement of the offence, or if those caught using a phone at the wheel avoid penalty points and a fine by attending a retraining course instead.

Once you examine the detail of the Statement the alarm bells sound with the admission that: "the vast majority of first time offenders will not incur a fixed penalty notice or penalty points but will instead be offered an educational course." 

... the vast majority of first time offenders will not incur a fixed penalty notice or penalty points but will instead be offered an educational course.

Department for Transport Road safety Statement

Never mind the evidence, there’s money in retraining!

Last year over 120,000 drivers were caught illegally using a mobile phone, but only 17,414 drivers were prosecuted for the offence, down from 32,571 in 2009. The rest were dealt with by a warning or attending a retraining course instead.

In October this year, CTC made written submissions to the Transport Committee, which was undertaking a review of road traffic enforcement. We outlined the available evidence regarding driver re-training courses. Put bluntly, there is no current evidence that such courses work in changing driver behaviour and improving road safety. There is evidence, however, that drivers with close to 12 points on their licence do modify their behaviour to avoid losing their licence. Not exactly surprising.

Despite the lack of evidence of any safety benefit, the plan still seems to be to divert drivers to courses rather than prosecute wherever possible. The Statement claims the decision in each case will be made at the discretion of the police, but as I reported in a blog in November, the Police have already admitted retraining courses can be used to raise money, with cash not safety an important factor.

Selfie drivers

Given the admitted financial incentives and the Government’s clear expectations regarding the use of retraining courses, it seems likely that the number of prosecutions for driver mobile phone use will continue to fall. This is in spite of a 2014 DfT study which found mobile phone use whilst driving was increasing. Research from the Institute of Advanced Motoring this summer revealed the frightening extent of the problem. Of the drivers surveyed:

  1. 9% admitted to taking a selfie whilst driving in the previous month.
  2. 8% admitted to driving whilst using a video-calling application such as FaceTime or Skype.
  3. 7% admitted to watching videos and streaming catch-up television while driving.
  4. 18% admitted to accessing the internet using a smartphone or tablet whilst driving.

With all of the statistics above there were also age groups, typically between 25 – 35, where the figures were much higher, with men overall disproportionately the worst offenders.

We’ve not caught anyone so we must be cutting crime

Whilst drivers were clearly breaking the mobile phone driving laws, the number given penalty points for this offence in 2014 fell by 40% according to the IAM. The overuse of retraining courses is one reason, but an additional factor is the lack of a visible roads policing presence.

Government pronouncements on penalties for road traffic offences are merely pie crust promises if there are no traffic police on the roads who might catch an offending driver. As CTC has previously reported, traffic police numbers have been reduced by 37% nationally in the last ten years, even though total police numbers are down by just 3.5%. 

If you can’t catch them other than by accident or chance, and then send the vast majority of those you do catch on a course rather than prosecute, forgive me for being sceptical about the impact of proposed penalty increases.

Exceptional hardship and counting to twelve

It would nonetheless be churlish not to welcome increased penalty points for those drivers who are actually caught and prosecuted. The Statement refers to an increase from 3 to 4 points for the majority of drivers, but from 3 to 6 points for drivers of larger vehicles such as HGVs. But will this deter drivers?

In theory, drivers should be more concerned about potential increased points on their licence, but only if the courts actually disqualify drivers when the points on their licence ‘tot up’ to 12. Regrettably over 7,000 drivers will be merrily motoring on our roads this Christmas with more than 12 points on their licence, some with up to 42 points recorded for multiple offences. Rather than banning them the courts have accepted that disqualification will cause them ‘exceptional hardship’, and allowed them to keep their licences.

Please Sir – can we have our review?

The Statement also refers to the Government's intention to consider the outcome of the motoring offences and penalties review (the Review). That would be the one they announced 19 months ago (in May 2014), which CTC has asked about continuously ever since. Former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling had originally hoped it would be subject to a public consultation within the next few months after his announcement in May 2014. However, more recently in September 2015 during a parliamentary debate on road traffic sentencing, the question was dodged by Justice Minister Andrew Selous MP, leaving the review still languishing. A reconsideration of driving disqualifications and the abuse of the ‘exceptional hardship’ excuse to avoid disqualification is one of the key issues CTC intends to raise within the Review, as part of our Road Justice campaign

An increase in penalty points for mobile phone offences will only be effective as a road safety measure if attracting points carries a real risk of disqualification. We now have a 31 page Statement on road safety plans. It lacks one key sentence. That’s the one with a start date for the Review.

Look Mum ‘no hands’

Whilst the Statement refers specifically to increased penalties for drivers using hand-held mobile phones, there is a separate reference to a review of ‘dangerous in-car mobile phone usage’. If that means the Government are finally waking up to the risks of drivers using ‘hands-free’ mobile phones then that is long overdue.

Currently using a ‘hands-free’ mobile phone is not illegal per se, although drivers can be prosecuted for careless driving if distracted whilst using such a device. Research carried out by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) however shows that the use of a mobile phone whilst driving, whether hand held or hands free, increases the risk of a crash fourfold, as well as reducing reaction times. Any idea that ‘hands-free’ is good and ‘hand-held’ is bad is a complete fallacy.

The specific risks to cyclists from drivers distracted whilst using ‘hands-free’ mobile phones was all too apparent when HGV driver Petre Beiu caused permanent and life-changing injuries to Times journalist Mary Bowers in November 2011. Beiu was talking on his ‘hands-free’ mobile phone and failed to see Mary cycling to work in front of his truck, driving over her whilst distracted by his phone conversation.

Distracted priorities

The key danger with mobile phones is distraction, not the exact manner in which the device is used. Cyclist Chris Dennehy tragically died in September 2014 after lorry driver John Noble was distracted allegedly ‘reaching across to play a sermon on his mobile phone’. Cyclist Mark Greenwood's life was similarly ended prematurely in January 2014 by John Mitchell’s decision to exchange flirty WhatsApp messages whilst driving. The means of device use varies, but the consequence of the distraction remain the same.

In 2014, according to the aforementioned Independent article, 492 injuries to road users were a consequence of a driver using a phone. Twenty one fatal incidents and 84 serious injuries were sustained wholly or partly as a consequence of a driver using a mobile phone at the wheel. The Government is right to identify mobile phone use by drivers as a major road safety priority, but promising to increase the points and fines for ‘hand-held’ mobile users without more dedicated policing is just publicity over substance.

Tackling the issues of distracted drivers should be a key priority, and that requires:

  1. Better enforcement – which means more traffic police officers and/or the better use of technology.
  2. Prosecution rather than retraining courses.
  3. Effective implementation of the penalty points and ‘totting up’ process by the courts, to disqualify those who have acquired 12 points.
  4. A review of motoring offences to include the issue of ‘hands-free’ mobile use.

Unsafe drivers let off the hook

Yesterday, CTC published its response to the Road Safety Statement criticising various proposals which do not address the real road safety issues. With regard to mobile phone driving specifically, the Government's plans do little to prevent unsafe drivers being let off the hook when they drive whilst distracted, but perhaps the headlines over the weekend about clamping down and appearing tough were more important.  

New Year Wish!

Just to finish, and in case I have not made this clear already, despite having written articles, to the Justice Secretary Michael Gove, asked MPs to raise parliamentary questions and repeatedly asked the same question: "Please can you tell me when the Government’s review of motoring offences and penalties is actually going to start?", nobody is prepared to give an answer.

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