Let’s hope tougher penalites deter phone use while driving

Today new penalties for drivers using their mobile phones behind the wheel come into force.

Jayne Willetts, Roads Policing lead for the Police Federation of England and Wales, shares her thoughts on the new penalties, and whether they’ll be effective.

Attention drivers – it’s time to stop using your phone while you’re behind the wheel. For good. Despite lots of media coverage, and various campaigns across forces and road user groups, I was disappointed to hear that a poll last week found some 39 per cent of drivers were not aware of the law change.

From today, if you are caught using your phone at the wheel, you will be subject to a £200 fine and six points on your licence. These rules are the same if you’re stopped at traffic lights or queuing in traffic.

But – does it go far enough? What exactly does “using” a phone while driving mean? It’s hand-held or similar device, but what about headphones? What about hands-free Bluetooth? Is holding the phone up to your ear to talk really the problem? For me the real issue is about distraction. This might be holding a phone, or driving without due care and attention – and that’s the same no matter what method or device you’re using. There is an exceptionally high level of concentration needed for the ever-changing risks the roads can present.

One possible solution could be having your phone or Sim card seized if you’re caught using it while driving. I made that suggestion at our Roads Policing Conference, in January, and have to say it’s an idea that’s been very well received by the public. I even received a letter from a member of the public applauding my comments – “after seeing you on the BBC I felt compelled to applaud you for your comments, however I feel what you said does not go far enough. The fines are not fit for purpose and do not deter the people from the offence in question”.

After speaking with my daughter’s friends who are aged 17 and 18 years old, they made clear that the risk of losing their phone was greater than any fine that could be dished out. But it’s these young, and or new, drivers especially that should take note of today’s change – those license holders have a reduced threshold for disqualification. New drivers can only receive up to 6 points on their license in the first two years from passing their test.

What we need is more hard-hitting education schemes. Ones that truly highlight the lack of concentration and awareness when using a phone while talking, texting, live streaming (yes that actually happens, more than you might think!). We need drivers to understand those 2, 3, 4 seconds you look at your phone could be 2, 3, 4 seconds to lose your life, or end someone else’s’.

This education should be hand-in-hand with enforcement – because it can’t be tickets alone which change people. More than that, we don’t have the resources to rely solely on enforcement options. There just aren’t enough specialist roads policing officers to spot all the people breaking the law while driving.

Across England and Wales right now, there are only 4,800 roads policing officers. Response and neighbourhood teams are too busy focusing on non-roads-related issues to be able to lend a hand and unfortunately, that means many unsafe drivers are going under the radar. Investment in roads policing must happen if the Government wants to continue pushing for further enforcement – our thin blue line is at risk of becoming invisible.