Distracted drivers - Britain's biggest road threat?

Andrew Newbound

By: Andrew Newbound

ARE DISTRACTED DRIVERS NOW BRITAIN’S BIGGEST ROAD THREAT?

The 10-year jail sentence for a truck driver whose vehicle killed a mother and three children while using his phone has illustrated the dangers of drivers being distracted by devices such as SmartPhones.

The case has once again highlighted the perils of using mobile phone technology at the wheel. Despite this being against the law, the numbers of motorists using mobile phones to make calls, texts or social media updates whilst driving continues to rise.

The European Commission suggest up to 30% of all accidents in Europe are caused by road user distraction. At current rates, distracted driving is soon expected to be the biggest single cause of death and injuries on the roads.

Successive governments have employed high-profile campaigns to demonise drink driving and educate drivers. The message is finally getting through and the numbers of accidents caused by this are now thankfully in steep decline.

Safety campaigners believe the government now needs to turn its attention to distraction driving. After all, the effect of talking on a phone while driving has been shown to be far worse than drinking certain amounts of alcohol.

MOBILE PHONE USE – FAR WORSE THAN DRINK DRIVING

Driver reaction times are 30% slower while using a hands-free phone than driving with a blood alcohol level of 80mg alcohol per 100ml blood (the current limit in England and Wales). And nearly 50% slower than driving under normal conditions.

Worse still, reading and writing messages while driving – including texting, emailing or social networking – is even more distracting than talking on a phone. Texting drivers have 35% slower reaction times, and one large-scale study found texting drivers were 23 times more likely to crash.

So, why is the use of mobile phones whilst driving so dangerous, and is it simply a temporary phenomenon? As mobile phone technology becomes more and more embedded in our lives, the human brain will surely adapt to accommodate it - even when driving.

Human evolution suggests this is unlikely to happen. Our brains are pre-wired to work in particular ways. For instance, a recent paper on driver distraction by the University of Sussex explained that when we talk, we visualise whatever we’re chatting about. This process uses the same part of the brain that we also use to watch the road.

STUDY SUGGESTS MOBILE PHONES AND DRIVING ARE INCOMPATIBLE

Dr Graham Hole, Sussex University’s senior lecturer in psychology felt the report findings suggested there was only one logical conclusion he could draw. ‘I would ban the use of mobile phones by drivers altogether. I don’t think their use is compatible with driving.’

It isn’t only mobile phone use that is causing problems for drivers. Dr Hole argues that touchscreen technology, rather than being the in-journey driving aid they were perhaps designed to be, could actually be contributing to driver distraction.

“With conventional controls you can make use of your tactile senses, too,” he explained. “You can feel the difference between the volume control and the smaller balance knob, for example, so you’re not just relying on one sense. Touchscreens force the driver to rely on visual cues to operate them.”

On newer cars, this technology is built into the dashboard and has now become an intrinsic part of the driving experience. Clearly, if the car is being provided with this technology, drivers will assume that it is safe to use. Yet, as Dr Hole suggests, this might not be the case. However, until manufacturers recognise this or governments introduce legislation to better regulate this technology, things won’t change.

This can’t be said of mobile phone use. Drivers caught using their hand held mobile phones at the wheel already face a fine and up to three penalty points. However, the message might not be getting through. Figures recently obtained from the DVLA show that almost 240,000 drivers had been caught driving while distracted during the last four years. Of those, almost 10,000 had been caught twice in the same period.

TOUGHER PENALTIES MAY BE THE ONLY ANSWER

Earlier this year, the Department of Transport announced tougher penalties for drivers caught using a hand-held mobile while driving. From early 2017, texting, making phone calls without a hands free kit, or checking social media will result in £200 fine, plus six driving licence penalty points.

These new rules will apply to drivers in England, Scotland and Wales and will be even more severe for any driver caught committing the offence twice. These double-whammy drivers could be hit with a fine up to £1,000 and a six month driving ban. Drivers who have recently passed their test could have their licence revoked and be forced to retake their test.

These new rules will come into force sometime in the first half of 2017 in England, Scotland and Wales, and could see fines of up to £1,000 with a six-month driving ban for drivers who are caught twice for the offence.

However, in a recent interview, Simon Marsh, managing director of incident video camera firm SmartWitness, explained why even this might not be enough to discourage offenders:

“The only real deterrent is a one-year ban from driving for anyone caught texting at the wheel. It’s clear that the current legislation isn’t working and an increase to six points for mobile offenders will not be enough to stop the death toll.

“Lives are being ruined just for the reason that someone wants to send a text message whilst driving. The only message that should be sent is from government to motorists that this is not acceptable.”

Any changes to current laws won’t come into effect until the next Parliament, yet the courts don’t necessarily have to wait for new legislation. The law already gives judges the power to charge drivers with a range of offences. These include Dangerous Driving, Careless and Inconsiderate Driving, Failure to Be In Proper Control of the Vehicle, or Driving Without Due Care and Attention.

If prosecutors can demonstrate that using a mobile phone while driving lead to an offense of Dangerous Driving, judges can impose a prison sentence of up to two years and an unlimited fine.  For some drivers, this may be the only effective deterrent.

‘DISTRACTED’ DRIVING – MORE FACTS

-  A detailed study estimated 22% of all crashes could be caused by driver distraction

-  Distracted drivers have difficulty controlling speed and distance, and lane position can vary drastically

-  Drivers who perform a secondary task at the wheel are up to three times more likely to crash

-  Drivers speaking on phones are four times more likely to be in a crash that causes injury - this risk remains higher for up to 10 minutes after the call has ended

-  98% of drivers are not able to divide their attention without a significant deterioration in driving performance

-  Brain scanning confirms that speaking on a hands-free phone makes you less alert and less visually attentive

-  Hands-free calls cause almost the same level of risk - the call itself is the main distraction, not holding the phone.