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Mobile telephones… the new drink drive?

Few can now doubt the seriousness of using a hand held device whilst driving.

Last week I contributed to a debate on BBC Radio 3 Counties following the tragic deaths of Tracey Houghton, her sons Ethan and Josh, and her stepdaughter Aimee Goldsmith when a truck driven by Tomasz Kroker smashed into the vehicle in which they were travelling. His cab camera showed he was using his mobile device to select music and was distracted. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In September 2016 I was interviewed by BBC South East on the same subject following the release of mobile device prosecution statistics from Police Forces across England and Wales under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Even China is planning to introduce new laws making it illegal to do this, having recognised the carnage it has caused on its overcrowded roads. In August I was interviewed by China State TV to describe the law we have here and how it works. It is easy to describe what the law says, but it is not so easy to convincingly describe how transgressors are caught and prosecuted.

Sadly, the case of Tracey Houghton and her family is not isolated as there have been many cases before the courts where drivers using mobile devices have caused death and serious injury.

It has been against the law to use a hand held mobile telephone or an interactive device that sends or receives data since 2003 when existing legislation was extended to embrace multifunction devices such as smart phones and tablets. Using a simple mobile telephone has been against the law for much longer and yet the problem seems to have reached epidemic proportions. On any journey by road there is every chance you will see a number of drivers or cars and trucks performing all kinds of manoeuvres with phones clasped to their ears, or apparently texting.

Drink driving succeeded in becoming socially unacceptable with those caught being stigmatised. It is time to do the same for mobile device use.

The Government has plainly recognised there is a problem because it is planning to double the Fixed Penalty from £100 to £200 and from 3 to 6 penalty points. It is true therefore that two such offences in three years will very likely see drivers disqualified for 6 months, but is it enough, and what are the chances of being caught? Sometimes it seems that drivers are only caught as a result of being involved in accidents and a routine police inspection of the telephone. Otherwise its being seen by police, and that is plainly not happening enough. Causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving where the driving involves the use of a mobile device invariably carries a lengthy jail term, and has been increased from 10 to 14 years.

I think most drivers who use devices see the chances of being caught as so low that they break the law with impunity. A sea change in attitude is needed.

There is an alarming lack of understanding of what the law says. It is illegal to use a hand held device to conduct a conversation or to receive or send data. The device will be treated as being hand held if it has to be held in the hand to perform its function. It doesn’t actually have to be held in the hand. So for example if it’s on the passenger seat and you use a finger or two to press a function button, you commit the offence.

It’s also an offence for a qualified driver to use a mobile device whilst supervising a learner driver, and it’s an offence for a passenger to hold a device up for a driver to use. There is little room for misunderstanding.

Figures for the last 4 years reveal that across England and Wales the number of drivers caught for using mobile phones reduced from a total of 178,879 to 94,606. That is a reduction of 47%, and is astonishing. Of those caught, some received fixed penalties and others were sent on a training course. The figures show that around 70% were sent on a training course and the remainder received a fixed penalty.

Research has shown that there are an increasing number of drivers who think its ok to make a quick call or to check incoming texts. I imagine most of those drivers would not dream of taking the same attitude with alcohol, and yet is is well known that drivers on the phone pose a greater risk than those who have consumed low levels of alcohol. There is a lack of fear of being caught or even punished. Attitudes to drink driving were successfully changed over time and yet 10 to 15 years after it first became unlawful to use a mobile telephone whilst driving, the problem is getting worse and shows little sign of changing.

Four innocent people died when they were crushed by a truck driven by Tomasz Kroker who was checking his music. It is the most recent and shocking example of a widespread problem. It took but a few seconds for this to happen. The Judge rightly described him as turning his lorry into a killing machine, but everyone who uses a device whilst driving does the same.

Police plainly need to do more with those caught and to make it a much higher priority. To send such a high proportion on educational courses arguably sends the wrong message. Drivers see the risk of punishment as low and that needs to be addressed.

Above all attitudes need to change. And it’s not just the attitude of the driver. We all have a responsibility to educate and to intervene when we can. How often are drivers seen using phones, with passengers sat next to them apparently doing nothing? I have seen instances of driver and passnger using their phones!

Employers too need to make it plain they will not condone such behaviour or require employees to take calls whilst driving.

Unless this issue is addressed in the same way as drink driving was, there will be more serious injuries and fatalities.

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