Phoney fears about driving

Are drivers a menace on their mobiles?

Luke Robins-Grace

Topics Politics

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New research commissioned by the insurance company Direct Line and carried out by the UK Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) released on 22 March 2002 purports to show that using a mobile phone while driving – even with a hands-free set – is more dangerous than driving over the legal alcohol limit.

According to Direct Line, a ban on hand-held mobile use is ‘desperately overdue’. Using a hands-free phone was not considered quite as dangerous, but was reckoned to be worse than driving under the influence (1). The report also advocates a drink-drive-style campaign to, you’ve guessed it, ‘raise awareness’ of the dangers of driving and phoning (2).

Given the current preoccupation with the risks associated with driving, these proposals come as little surprise. But they relegate the critical faculties we use as drivers to mere reflexes, as though drivers were laboratory rats. Of course there is some element of risk involved in using a mobile phone while driving, but managing risk is what driving is all about. To say that drivers are incapable of doing more than one thing at once misunderstands driving, and patronises drivers.

As it stands, there is scant legislation regarding the use of mobile phones while driving. Using a phone at the wheel is not an offence in itself, but it may be a contributing factor to a charge of ‘careless driving’ under section three of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (3). This allows the driver the ability to exercise his discretion over what is or is not a dangerous task to undertake in a car.

Current legislation rightly focuses on the quality of driving. Depending on the circumstances, any distraction can result in an accident, but drivers routinely assess road conditions and actions of other drivers to ensure they are driving with due care and attention. Driving is all about calculating risks and doing several things at once, so why the big deal about mobile phones?

The TRL’s agenda has a certain logic. If the absolute priority is to improve road safety, it makes sense to identify activities that are likely to cause accidents and then restrict them. From a safety perspective one of the problems with the current legislation is that it will only identify risks retrospectively. And what’s wrong with taking a few choices away from drivers if it means saving more lives?

But the safety-first logic of this argument needs to be weighed up against the reality of driving – and tested against the detail of the research. Direct Line tested specifically for reaction time, negotiating a bend, and keeping a certain distance from the car in front. These are fundamental driving skills and are commonsense aspects to test, but these skills are not all needed in every driving condition. In heavy traffic we might need to do all of these things at once, but not necessarily on an empty motorway. Does using a hands-free set on a clear stretch of A-road compare to fumbling with a dodgy cassette player in the middle of the city?

The answer is no: and this is precisely why current legislation makes sense. If a driver is found to be ‘careless’ under section three of the Road Traffic Act 1988, for whatever reason, he may be prosecuted (4). Direct Line presupposes that drivers use phones in all situations, but this is an unrealistic premise.

Another questionable aspect to the report is its use of drunk drivers as a point of comparison. This is clearly a handy trick for shock-horror press releases, but that’s where the comparison ends. Being drunk behind the wheel is an ongoing condition that cannot be stopped at will, whereas being on the phone (like drinking from a can of Coke) is not. A more realistic comparison would be with driving with screaming children or opening a bag of sweets. In fact, a Direct Line MORI survey shows that drivers found that – as you might expect – reading a map is more likely to impede driving than making a call on a handheld phone (5).

Yet these commonsensical points have not stopped former government ministers from endorsing Direct Line’s scare stories. ‘We must all recognise that driving and using mobile phones can kill’, states Janet Anderson, New Labour MP for Rossendale and Darwen, in the introduction to the Direct Line report. ‘It must…be made crystal clear to drivers who insist on behaving in this way that they endanger the safety of the public generally, and their own safety too (6).

Yet, as Anderson then goes on to admit, ‘it is impossible to keep track of how often mobile phones are a factor in road traffic accidents’. Are we talking statistical risk assessments here, or catch-all moral messages? All this panic-dressed-as-research really amounts to is a statement that drivers cannot be trusted.

Drivers have only just got over the guilt-trip that is the Christmas drink-driving campaigns (see Bar, car, black sheep, by Rob Lyons). On 25 March 2002, the UK government launched a campaign about the dangers of falling asleep at the wheel – no doubt inspired by the case of Gary Hart, whose failure to stay awake when driving caused the Selby train crash of 1 March 2001 (7). A tragedy, yes – but do all drivers really need to be told that they need to stay awake? On 15 March 2002 New Scientist magazine cautioned the dangers of listening to loud music while driving (8) – despite the fact that, as Stuart Blackman has argued, the study that this concern was based upon proves little about actual levels of risk (9).

And now Direct Line, not content with worrying about mobile phones, has called upon the government ‘to initiate a wider debate examining the growing dangers of all in-car technologies’ (10). You’d better learn how to reset that dash-mounted GPS, while you still can.

Read on:

Bar, car, black sheep, by Rob Lyons

Music to scaremongers’ ears, by Stuart Blackman

(1) ‘Hands-free impaired driving less than using a hand-held mobile phone. However, even hands-free phones impair driving more than alcohol’, Direct Line Press Release, 22 March 2002

(2) ‘Eventually we would like to see the use of mobile phones when driving, both hands-held and hands-free, become as socially unacceptable as drink driving’, Dominic Burch, Direct Line’s road safety campaign manager, Direct Line Press Release 22 March 2002

(3) Section 3 of the 1988 Act, amended under the Road Traffic Act 1991, allows for prosecutions where drivers who are using a mobile phone cause death by dangerous driving

(4) For not maintaining ‘full control of the vehicle at all times’ drivers can be prosecuted under Regulation 104 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986.This carries a maximum fine of £2500. Section 3 of the 1988 Act, amended under the Road Traffic Act 1991, allows for prosecutions where drivers who are using a mobile phone cause death by dangerous driving. Equally, it can be an offence for an employer to require employees to use a mobile phone while driving

(5) The Mobile Phone Report, A Report On The Effects of Using a ‘Hand-Held’ and ‘Hands-Free’ Mobile Phone on Road Safety, Direct Line Insurance, March 2002

(6) The Mobile Phone Report, A Report On The Effects of Using a ‘Hand-Held’ and ‘Hands-Free’ Mobile Phone on Road Safety, Direct Line Insurance, March 2002

(7) The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) began an awareness-raising campaign concerning driving tired the week beginning 25 March 2002. ‘Tonight John will die in his sleep. He is warm, comfortable and has his family by his side. Think, don’t drive tired’

(8) Fast music linked to car crashes, New Scientist, 15 March 2002

(9) Music to scaremongers’ ears, Stuart Blackman

(10) The Mobile Phone Report, A Report On The Effects of Using a ‘Hand-Held’ and ‘Hands-Free’ Mobile Phone on Road Safety, Direct Line Insurance, March 2002

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Topics Politics


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