On the 10th of August 2016 Tomasz Kroker crashed his HGV into stationary traffic on the A34 in Berkshire. Immediately prior to the impact he was scrolling through music on his phone. He killed a woman and three children. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison.
On 12th August 2015 Christopher Gard sent a text message to his friend about going for a walk with his friend’s dog. He was driving at the time and whilst his eyes were off the road he crashed into and killed a cyclist. He was sent to prison for 9 years.
Both cases outline the catastrophic consequences that can so easily occur when drivers use their phone behind the wheel. People who use their mobile phone whilst driving are a very real danger to themselves and every other road user.
In a recent survey by the RAC it was found that attitudes are changing but not in the right direction. Drivers who felt taking a quick call was acceptable increased from 7% to 14%. Those who felt safe checking social media whilst driving increased from 14% to 20%. To compound these issues further the number of prosecutions over the last 5 years has almost halved from 178k in 2011/12 to only 95k in 2015. The net result is an increasing likelihood of offending whilst the chances of actually being caught and prosecuted is reducing.
Over the years the penalty for a car driver using a phone has gradually increased and is currently set to double to a £200 fine and 6 penalty points. What hasn’t changed is the actual offence itself. This still revolves around a phone being ‘hand held’. As such handsfree operation is, as far as this offence is concerned, completely legal.
When the legislation was first introduced phones were very simple devices capable of making calls and sending text messages. The offence very simplistically focused on ensuring the drivers hands were where they should be (on the steering wheel) and not on the level of distraction a call can engender. Any reasonable person will agree that a quick 15 second handsfree call to say you are on your way home is vastly different to a 20 minute business call or an argument with your partner. This wider distraction is not something the legislation ever covered.
If this danger wasn’t enough, phones have now evolved into powerful pocket sized computers capable of a vast array of functions. In addition to calls and texts they have a multitude of apps that vie for our attention with notifications and alerts presented on large high definition screens. As the devices have changed our reliance upon them has increased too. Our desire to be informed and up to date has reached such a state that we have developed an ‘always on’ culture. Our devices have become an extension of ourselves and we have been led to a place where many suffer with FOMO (fear of missing out). We cannot leave our devices alone and when an alert sounds we are inextricably drawn to read it, sometimes regardless of the very obvious dangers.
We are now entering an era where cars have functionality built into them that allows phone applications to appear on the media screen within the vehicle. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are two examples that deliver mobile phone functionality into the driving arena. We are easily seduced by new technology but we would be wise to sit back for a moment and seriously think about what functionality we actually need whilst driving a car. At present these devices are limited to SatNav, calls, texts and music. CarPlay also allows access to Spotify. This can easily be seen as combining, in one place, all the functions we may enjoy from different devices already in our cars.
Simplistically this would appear to be logical progression but how long before other applications become available including social media and livestreaming applications? Without exception these products are marketed on the basis they make driving safer whilst giving the driver access to more information and all those things that are important to them. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Driving is a complex blend of hand, eye and foot coordination and demands our full attention. Advances in mobile phone and in-car technology have always focused on keeping the hands on the wheel and voice activation/control has been a big driver in enabling this situation. This has engendered a belief that keeping our hands on the wheel will therefore deliver a safer drive. Whilst in singularity this cannot be denied there are other factors at play that are close to being abandoned by the driver distracted by a phone.
In 2002 TRL conducted research into the use of phones by drivers both hand held and hands free. This was benchmarked against drink driving (a known dangerous driving practice). The results indicated that certain aspects of driving performance are impaired more by using a phone than having a blood /alcohol level above the current drink drive limit. The study reinforced all the concerns about mobile phone use by drivers. TRL concluded that;
“Drivers need to be strongly discouraged from engaging in any phone use while behind the wheel”
The evidence points to what has been known for a long time. Having our hands on the wheel alone does not engender safe driving. Our eyes and our mind need to be on the road too. Devices and technology in cars are increasingly providing ‘eye candy’ and feeding our desire to be connected all the time. They are creating an easy distraction that takes the drivers attention away from where it should be and consequently the risk of fatal and serious injury road traffic accidents increases as a result.
Some news outlets reacted to the RAC report by describing the use of phones by drivers as a pandemic. When coupled with the significant reduction in prosecutions it was argued it was a pandemic running unchecked.
Nothwithstanding the pending increases, some quarters are calling for stiffer penalties for those caught. Others are calling for technology advances that prevent drivers using a phone whilst the car is in motion. Both are riddled with complications. A car that isolates the driver’s phone may also isolate any the passengers may have. A driver could of course simply have two phones and bypass the safety features. It has been evidenced that using a phone whilst driving can be equivalent to drink driving and yet the penalty for drink driving is significantly harsher. Would an increase to bring mobile phone use in line with drink driving help reduce its prevalence? In some regards yes. However, we know that education, penalty and enforcement are all essential factors in changing behaviour. This final factor requires the fear of being caught . It would seem from the numbers admitting to using phones coupled with reduced prosecutions that the fear of being caught is quite low.
The government have gradually increased the penalties for drivers caught using a phone whilst driving. The evidence to show it is as dangerous as drink driving has been available since 2002 yet 14 years later the penalty is some distance from the two matters reaching equal footing. Education by many road safety organisations such as Brake and national media/social media coverage continue to highlight the dangers. Regular enforcement action by the police helps to tackle the issue but the reduced numbers of traffic officers across the country is likely to be contributory factor in the dwindling number of prosecutions being brought. In a time of austerity it would take a considerable amount of investment from the government to allow Chief Constables the flexibility to dedicate resources to tackle this issue more aggressively.
Technology will continue to evolve and in years to come a realistic prospect on how to manage phone use in cars will no doubt become a reality. However, in the interim people are dying on our roads every day. The solution is simple in theory but complex in application in that it needs multiple stakeholders buy in to move forward. Changing the mindset of today’s drivers is hard because behavior engendered by ‘handsfree is legal therefore ok’, is embedded deeply. It is not impossible but, as we know from 50 years of drink drive campaigning, it takes many years for the impact to be seen. Regular innovative campaigns, sensitive highlighting of tragedies stemming from phone use and encouraging people to take pledges such as the Brake Pledge all help. Manufacturers should be encouraged, maybe even required, to wind back on the ever increasing use of unnecessary technology in cars that seems to prioritise profit and novelty over safety. A recent survey by Brake has shown overwhelmingly that distracted drivers are considered by many to be the biggest danger on our roads. Drivers need to understand the degree of impairment using a phone engenders and that driving safely is far more than just being handsfree. Passengers need to comprehend the dangers and feel empowered to challenge drivers using their phone.
Only if everyone works together will we see positive change in the use of phones by drivers. The government, police, manufacturers, road safety organisations and the public must all combine their efforts to effect change. The original mobile phone offence making handsfree use legal was misinformed and set us down the wrong road. A road we have been travelling since 2003 and it’s going to take some considerable back peddling to get us back on track. However, it’s a journey we have to make because peoples lives depend upon it.