By Helen Wells, Lecturer in Criminology
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has announced that fines for a variety of motoring offences will rise from £60 to £90. Offences covered by the increase included speeding, driving through a red light and using a hand held mobile device. Interestingly, the offence of careless driving (for which a new fixed penalty is proposed) was couched in terms of behaviours that we can probably all recognise: cutting up other drivers, eating a sandwich or lighting a cigarette at the wheel, driving at an inappropriate speed and needlessly hogging the middle lane on a motorway. What is not so immediately recognisable is the legal definition of any of these behaviours, which all require some degree of interpretation. No doubt, however, the choice of these irritating activities is deliberate and is likely to appeal to motorists who often criticise the behaviour of other motorists whilst defending their own activities which they view as comparatively more minor or insignificant.
Current reporting of the announcement in the media has, perhaps surprisingly, focussed on the enforcement of the offence of using a mobile phone while driving – not on speeding. Even the Daily Mail opted to use the word ‘safety’ in its headline (and did not put it in its usual sceptical “scare-quotes”) and seemed to support the need for more enforcement to ensure that these new penalties and offences have the desired effect. Seemingly, there is more of a consensus from motorists that mobile phone use is a genuine and legitimate focus for police attention, although at first glance the offence does show several similarities with speed limit violations. How might we explain this differential reaction then?
Research into the criminal histories of motoring offenders has focussed on ‘serious’ traffic offenders (drink drivers, dangerous drivers, disqualified drivers) so we are unable to comment on whether or not mobile phone users are ‘real’ criminals in off road contexts (as ANPR research tells us those without insurance, tax or MOT tend to also be) or whether they are more likely to be otherwise law-abiding individuals, but my money would be on the latter. Both the offences of speeding and mobile phone use are ones that can be, and are, committed by the ‘ordinary’ driver. They are the sort of behaviour that a ‘law-abiding’ driver might drift into, and out of, without too much malign intent. Of course, the level of intent and the level of harm are not correlated and even the smallest lapses in attention can lead to some catastrophic results, but persuading the public of this is not easy. No wonder, perhaps, when recent central government guidance on road safety advocates a ‘twin track’ approach to offending that reflects the fact that some drivers have ‘lapses’ (and need education) while OTHERS ‘cause significant harm’ (and should be punished). So how come the 400+ comments offered to the Daily Mail site on this story (at the time of writing at 2pm on the day the story came out) are broadly supportive of the crackdown on mobile phone use when they are so noticeably less so when it comes to stories about speeding and speed cameras?
Well, the research basis for the two offences does not provide many answers to this question. The legitimacy of enforcing against both types of offences is supported by a growing research base that links the behaviour to an increase risk of a crash occurring. For some reason, this seems to be believed more in one case than the other. Whilst suggestions that speeding is responsible for 1/3 of road crashes continue to be challenged, the findings that mobile phone use reduces the drivers’ attention by in excess of 70% seem to be more readily believed, and were even quoted supportively in public responses to the story on both The Guardian and the Daily Mail websites.
Perhaps, then, it is explained by the prevalence of the offence. Whilst research suggests that almost all drivers speed at some point, perhaps we are not all as inclined to pick up our mobile phone whilst driving. Perhaps this is simply because our phone may not be to hand in the way that the accelerator is to foot, or perhaps we are all more receptive to new road safety messages than old ones. Perhaps exceeding the speed limit has been positively reinforced by years, even decades, of ‘getting away with it’, and mobile phone use while driving has yet to become such a habit.
Perhaps, in the end, it is all down to drivers simply wanting to get where they want to go. The peculiar thing about speeding is that, if another driver is doing it, and gets away with it (by which I mean does not cause a crash) then we may consider that they have assisted our passage to our destination by not holding us up. It is slow drivers that more often come in for criticism, in my research experience – something perhaps alluded to in the DfT announcement about a crackdown on inappropriate speed. Another driver using their mobile phone, however, produces no benefit to anyone else in terms of keeping traffic moving, and (I’m talking from my own experience of observing phone-using drivers here) is more likely to be left at a junction with us sitting impatiently behind, veering across onto our side of the road or hampering our progress in some other way. As such, we may support enforcement attempts that problematize what they are doing at the expense of our freedom of movement.
Unlike speed limit infringements, detecting people using their mobile phones at the wheel is going to require humans. It will not be a case of automated enforcement clicking driver after driver and generating fine after fine at relatively low cost. Perhaps, given a context of declining traffic officer numbers phone-using drivers just don’t foresee a clampdown in this area as posing them much of a problem.
POSTSCRIPT: FORTHCOMING PhD STUDENTSHIP OPPORTUNITY: Do the issues raised in this blog interest you? Are you looking for the opportunity to conduct research in this area? Well read on. The DfTs announcement, as reported, failed to make any reference to educational alternatives to fixed penalties although the 2011 Strategic Framework for Road Safety suggested that education programmes would feature heavily in future activity and early research shows that they have some success in changing attitudes. In an era when any proposals to target driving offences are met with calls of ‘revenue raising’, alternatives that do not contribute to central or local funds have been popular with drivers and enforcers alike. Offering the driver an opportunity to learn from their mistake and to modify their behaviour may be viewed as a fairer alternative to the fixed level fine and, crucially in the case of Speed Awareness Courses offers the driver the chance to avoid the really unpopular aspect of the penalty – the endorsement points. Just such an alternative specifically aimed at changing attitudes to mobile phone use amongst those caught offending in this way operates in Staffordshire and preliminary research into its effectiveness suggests cause for optimism. A PhD studentship, funded jointly by Keele University and Staffordshire Police, and looking into the longer term effects of such a course will begin shortly, so if the issues in this posting are of interest to you, watch this space for information on an exciting opportunity in this area!