Last Friday it became illegal for motorists to touch their mobile phone for any reason while behind the wheel. This is a welcome change in the law which could save lives. But, as the Police Foundation’s recent report, The Future of Roads Policing, argues, legislation only works if there are sufficient roads policing officers to enforce it.
According to official figures from 2020, the last year for which we have data 17 people were killed, 114 people were seriously injured, and 385 were slightly injured in road traffic accidents in Great Britain where the driver was using a mobile phone. However, the data collection method is inconsistent and the total could be far higher.
The new legislation is aimed at reducing those deaths. It means anyone caught touching their mobile device while driving, either for playing games, checking mapping apps, scrolling through photographs or merely unlocking it, could face a fine of up to £1,000 as well as six points on their licence or a full driving ban.
The law still applies if a driver is stopped at traffic lights, queuing in traffic, supervising a learner driver, or using a car that has a start/stop engine when you’re not moving. Drivers will still be able to use their mobile phones as a sat nav, but only if it remains in the cradle, they do not touch it and it is not obscuring their view of the road.
The pre-existing law, which came into force when mobile phones were only capable of calling and texting, previously only applied to so-called ‘interactive communication’. This led to some drivers escaping conviction by claiming that they were using their mobile for another reason.
Closing this loophole makes sense – after all it makes no difference to the victim whether a distracted driver was calling their mum or checking Google Maps just before causing a collision.
But changing legislation will only save lives if the public obey the law. And that will only happen if there are enough police officers to enforce it.
The evidence suggests that simply making it illegal to check social media while driving will not stop people posting that quick road selfie. After all, the pre-existing laws are by no means universally respected. Surveys of drivers repeatedly show that hand-held mobile phone use is one of their top safety concerns. Yet self-reported behaviour studies suggest there is a certain hypocrisy among drivers who will break a law they claim they agree with. In 2020, nearly 30 per cent of motorists said they make hand-held calls while driving at least occasionally. Although there was a slight decline to 26 per cent in 2021 – these numbers are still higher than the 24 per cent who reported breaking this law in 2019. In a similar way, research suggests that between 79 per cent and 99 per cent of drivers admit to speeding on occasion.
Part of the reason for this apparent hypocrisy is that motorists tend to rate their own driving as being better than those they see around them – so called self-enhancement bias. Research among college students found that while only 8.5 per cent perceived ‘other drivers’ as capable of talking on a mobile phone while driving, nearly half believed they themselves were capable of phoning while driving. Added to this is crash-risk optimism, where drivers underestimate the likelihood of their unsafe driving behaviour leading to a collision. This crash risk optimism is enhanced every time someone avoids a mishap while indulging in hazardous behaviour.
So how can you get drivers to stop gaming behind the wheel if simply making an action illegal is not enough to dissuade them? The evidence shows the fear of getting caught and fined by police is one of the few factors able to persuade motorists to abide by the rules of the road. Human enforcement is arguably more effective at reducing collisions than the use of automated cameras, as has been shown in studies around the effectiveness of speed cameras. It remains to be seen whether the same will be true of the mobile phone detection cameras which could be coming to the UK shortly.
Interestingly the perceived risk of being caught, rather than the actual risk, is most likely to influence driving behaviour. Which is unfortunate for this country, as surveys show drivers in England and Wales do not consider it very likely that they will be caught by the police for breaking traffic laws. Currently, 89 per cent of UK drivers believe they are unlikely to be checked by the police for using a hand-held mobile phone to talk or text, compared to an average of 79 per cent for the other countries. In a survey by the RAC specifically around this change in the law, most of the 2,000 drivers surveyed supported the change. However, the majority were unconvinced that the strengthened laws would make any difference – with seven in 10 of those who had concerns over its effectiveness saying drivers would not think it likely they would be caught and so carry on regardless.
And the public perception is accurate. As our report outlines, there simply aren’t the roads police available to ensure offenders are being caught and brought to justice. Road policing has been disproportionately hit by austerity. Between 2010 and 2014 numbers of dedicated traffic officers fell by 22 per cent and between 2015 and 2019, numbers fell by a further 18 per cent. Numbers have not yet recovered, despite the Uplift, and there are huge differences in capacity across forces. Some forces do not have a single dedicated traffic officer, choosing instead to have them double as, for example, firearms officers. This can mean that on occasion, there is no one left to police the roads.
The effects of the cuts in roads policing is particularly stark when it comes to Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) issued for using mobile phones while behind the wheel, which fell by 70 per cent between 2011 and 2018 and by 27 per cent between 2017 and 2018 alone. In a 2019 report into mobile phone use, the House of Commons Transport Committee explicitly linked this reduction in FPNs with an upward trend in those killed and seriously injured by drivers on their mobile phones.
Incidentally, this law does nothing to combat the equally dangerous hands-free use. Drivers using a hands-free phone still suffer from what is known as ‘inattention blindness’, in which they may ‘see’ hazards but do not register them. Unlike conversations with a passenger, talking using a mobile phone makes use of visual resources and processing that are also needed for driving and thus can significantly increase reaction times.
Education can help convince drivers to take ‘personal responsibility’ for their actions and change their behaviours. The change in the law is accompanied by an £800,000 awareness campaign run by THINK to dissuade drivers tempted to use their phone behind the wheel.
But education is only worthwhile if it is coupled with enforcement. Unless roads policing is effectively prioritised and is given the resources it needs to function effectively, people will still use their phone behind the wheel, just as they still speed and make hand-held calls, and people will still die on our roads.