Increasing mobile phone penalties - but will this be enforced?

Staged photo of driver texting at the wheel
The penalties for mobile phone use whilst driving have increased, but where's the deterrence without enforcement, what about the wider issues with distracted driving, why did the Government listen on this issue, and what's the lesson for other campaigning? Cycling UK's Senior Road Safety Officer Duncan Dollimore investigates.

Double points for distraction

As from today the penalties for using a hand held mobile phone whilst driving effectively double, with drivers caught in the act set to receive six penalty points on their licence rather than three. For those given a fixed penalty notice (FPN) the fine rises from £100 to £200, with the possibility of a £1000 fine if the driver is summoned to court instead, which should happen if it's a second offence or they already have six or more points on their licence for other offences.

Many of the articles, blogs and reports published by Cycling UK mention our work in seeking to influence Government policy and positions. They also often reflect a degree of frustration when our arguments and the representations of fellow campaign organisations appear to have been ignored. It is in that context that it is interesting to look at why, on mobile phone use, the Government did listen to campaign groups, those replying to its consultation, and responded to public pressure. 

Listening to campaigners

The original proposals outlined in January 2016 were to increase the FPN to £150 and the penalty points to six for those committing this offence whilst driving a HGV, but only to four with non-HGV drivers. The Department for Transport (DfT) received over 4,000 responses to the consultation, one of the largest ever for the DfT. Cycling UK was one of the 67 organisations who responded, with submissions which included removing the option of a remedial course as an alternative to a FPN and penalty points.

Whilst the points made by road safety organisations and individuals varied, there were common themes: distracted driving costs lives; the existing penalties were insufficient; increasing the penalties without visible enforcement of the offence would bring limited benefits; and remedial courses were a soft option.

Having listened, the DfT didn't stick to its original proposals. Within its consultation response it went further, increased the penalties, and said that remedial courses should not be offered to offenders. Ultimately, it's a matter for each police force whether to offer a remedial course in lieu of prosecution, but the message from Government is clear, don't do it. 

The naysayers - again

There are a few reasons why I am keen to praise and support the Government's willingness to listen and act on mobile phone penalties. One is that we spend enough time criticising inaction ​and decisions we dislike, and to be taken seriously on road safety and other cycling related matters we have to be prepared to welcome and applaud where appropriate. Another is that supporters, campaigners, and those who seek change on issues which affect people riding bikes, should realise that lobbying, responding to consultations, and repeating arguments you have made many times before, sometimes works.

I mention this in light of some of the negative comments on social media about the ongoing All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group Inquiry into Cycling and the Justice System. I blogged about this before the inquiry started, warning that there would be naysayers, sceptics and pessimists, all questioning what the inquiry would achieve. My predictions were right. The Twittersphere is filled with the same people complaining about the same issues, and suggesting that the inquiry is simply a forum for those giving evidence, such as Cycling UK, to get things off their chest. They rather miss the point that if enough of us bang on about something for long enough, sometimes, as with mobile phone use and penalties, the mood of Government changes.

Deterrence and targeted enforcement 

Of course increasing the penalties for driver mobile phone use is a limited deterrent if there is no fear of detection. The National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) announced that, starting today, there will be a week of targeted enforcement operations across all 43 police forces in England and Wales, with NPCC lead for Roads Policing, Chief Constable Suzette Davenport, saying that "We need people to understand that this is not a minor offence that they can get away with."

Too true, but though welcome, one week of targeted enforcement will not plug the hole left by a 37% reduction in full time equivalent traffic officer numbers over a ten year period, during which total officer numbers only fell by 3.5%. Penalties and enforcement are therefore two sides of the same coin, exactly the point many witnesses have made to the APPCG with reference to traffic officer numbers, targeted enforcement such as West Midlands Police's close pass operation, and the use of driving disqualification as a penalty.

We can keep on making these points, quietly lobbying and noisily campaigning, responding to consultations, asking people to do likewise and make their voice heard, and we will undoubtedly experience both success and defeat along the way. Alternatively, we can accept defeat and join the naysayers criticising the APPCG for at least trying to do something. It's not a difficult choice for me.

Snails, tortoises and hares

Back to mobile phone penalties and offences, the next battle has to be on distracted driving generally. We made the point in our consultation response that research shows drivers using either a hand-held or hands-free mobile phone whilst driving are four times more likely to crash whilst doing so, and there are still significant risks associated with hands-free mobiles due to the mental distraction and divided attention caused by taking part in a phone conversation whilst driving. 

Widening the debate on mobile phones to encompass all distracted driving and demanding more enforcement are therefore key lobbying and campaign issues. Not that long ago drink driving was regarded as socially acceptable by many, but over time with education, enforcement and public awareness, that attitude has largely changed. Hopefully we are are at the start of that process with mobile phone use and distracted driving, but it needs people who care about these issues to keep them in the spotlight, even when the sceptics say we are repeating the same things and getting nowhere.

I am reminded of my grandmother's favourite saying: "Patience and perseverance will take a snail to Jerusalem" usually followed by another tale about a tortoise and a hare!