Harsher penalties may do little to deter the use of mobile phones while driving if there aren’t enough police officers to enforce the law.
That’s the view of the union representing rank and file officers, road safety experts and the fleet industry, after the Government signalled a change in the law.
Under new rules, which will apply to England, Scotland and Wales, drivers caught using a handheld mobile phone will get six points on their licence and a £200 fine – doubled from three penalty points and a £100 fine.
And, more experienced drivers caught breaking the rules twice could be fined up to £1,000 and face at least a six-month driving ban.
The new rules, which could also see newly qualified drivers made to retake their test the first time they are caught, are expected to be introduced in the first half of 2017. However, more than half (51.3%) of respondents to a Fleet News poll said they did not believe tougher penalties would deter drivers from using a handheld phone.
Jayne Willetts, lead for Roads Policing for the Police Federation of England and Wales, welcomed the Government announcement, but said that tackling the issue would “take more than just harsher punishments”.
“Police do actively target people using mobile phones when they are out on duty, but, unfortunately, with fewer officers out on the roads, more of these offences are going undetected,” she said. “Having officers in marked cars out on the roads does act as a deterrent. However, due to the continued budget cuts over the past few years, there has been a very noticeable decline in the number of traffic police.”
The number of full-time dedicated roads policing officers has declined by 27% between 2010 and 2015 reducing the number to 3,901 across England and Wales (excluding the Metropolitan Police).
ACFO chairman John Pryor said the tougher penalties would only work “if the police have more people out to stop them”.
“Even on the day this was announced I was listening to the news report on the radio in the car and the driver in the car in the next lane was on their phone,” he said.
The proportion of people who feel it is acceptable to take a quick call on a handheld phone has doubled from 7% in 2014 to 14% in 2016, according to the RAC Report on Motoring.
RAC road safety spokesman Pete Williams said: “With compliance on some traffic laws including the use of handheld mobile phones seemingly getting worse, the RAC calls for an end to cuts to dedicated roads policing and urges the Government and chief constables to give greater priority to enforcement of road traffic laws.”
The message was the same from the road safety charity Brake. Ellie Pearson, Brake’s professional engagement manager, said: “It’s vital that the Government properly resources our police forces and there are enough dedicated road traffic officers to enforce these new penalties, so drivers know that if they use their phone at the wheel, they will be caught and punished.”
The RAC research also showed the percentage of drivers who said it was not acceptable to take a quick call at the wheel had fallen six percentage points from 84% in 2014 to 78% today.
And it is not just attitudes that are shifting – actual behaviours are changing significantly too, with the percentage of drivers who admit to having used a handheld mobile phone while driving now at 31% compared to just 8% in 2014.
Similarly, the proportion of drivers who ‘own up’ to sending a text, email or posting on social media has risen to 19% compared to 7% just two years ago.
Additionally, 14% admitted to taking photographs and videos with their phones while driving and 22% admitted they have done so when in stationary traffic.
Williams said: “It is alarming to see that some drivers have clearly relaxed their attitudes to the risks associated with this behaviour.”
The RAC’s findings mirror the results of research from Brake which showed just under half of drivers (49%) aged 25-34 go online or use apps (other than sat-nav apps) while driving.
Dr Lee Hadlington, a psychologist at De Montfort University in Leicester, said that app notifications which drive individuals into the ‘push economy’, where people are constantly being sent new updates, were partly to blame.
“Most people will respond to a notification within a few minutes, and may be distracted during that time wondering what the message or notification is about,” he explained.
“You also have the phenomena of fear of missing out – a pervasive feeling of anxiety which is linked to people believing they are missing out on a social experience that others may be having while they are detached from their smartphones.”
Constantly checking a smartphone can lead to rewards, which links into ‘interval level reinforcement’. “This process is one of the most robust mechanisms in terms of training behaviour, hence why people easily become addicted to checking their phones,” he said.
Research by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) found that drivers using a handheld mobile phone had reaction times 30% slower than those who had exceeded the current drink drive limit.
Crash statistics from the Department for Transport also show that in 2014 a driver impaired or distracted by their mobile phone was identified as a ‘contributory factor’ in 21 fatal road accidents, 84 serious and 387 slight accidents in the UK.
The issue has led Leicestershire Police to release the image of the aftermath of a fatal motorway crash caused by somebody using a mobile phone at the wheel.
Nurse Christy George, 38, had been on the phone to friends and family as she drove to work along the M1, when she lost control of her Škoda and swerved into the path of a lorry. The HGV then crossed the central reservation, colliding with a BMW and killing the driver Murray Simpson, 48, causing an eight-vehicle pile-up.
George was jailed for five years for causing death by dangerous driving and perverting the course of justice, after she tried to delete her call log to cover her tracks.
Shaun Helman, TRL’s head of transport psychology, said: “Any task that involves holding a device, looking at it, and interacting with it during driving will adversely affect driving performance.
“Typical effects are drifting out of lane, erratic speed control and being less aware of what is around you, resulting in poor anticipation of hazards.
“Recent research by TRL suggests that between 10-30% of road accidents in the EU are at least partly caused by distraction, and social media is an increasing risk in this area.
“Obviously some people, some of the time, value their social connectivity more than they value their safety and the safety of others. It is this perspective that should be targeted.”
Brake says fleet operators have an important role to play in preventing phone use at the wheel. “Operators should have policies in place banning all phone use at the wheel, including hands-free use,” said Pearson.
“It’s important that these policies are properly communicated to drivers, alongside educating them about why the policies are in place and the dangers of distracted driving.”
Pearson said it was also important that fleets made it clear to all employees that flouting the policy will not be tolerated and they should consider introducing technology that prevents phone use while a vehicle is in motion.