The A roads and motorways now policed by average speed cameras are the only carriageways in Britain on which most drivers are travelling within the speed limit. And now engineers in Australia have developed a new technology could have a similarly transformative effect on mobile phone use behind the wheel.
The new cameras take a bird’s eye view of passing cars and can very quickly identify the body language of drivers using mobile phones. It’s a solution that we are in desperate need of here in Britain. The threat of a penalty, which now comprises six points and a fine of £200, seemingly has little effect.
The fact that drivers fail to take the matter seriously mirrors the apathy of our authorities; in 2015, cyclist Lee Martin was killed by a driver who had eight previous convictions for using his phone at the wheel. The number of convictions has also halved as have fines imposed by the courts. Another case in 2015 saw a driver who was talking on her phone hands-free run over and kill a two-year-old child. She was looking for a parking space while talking and assumed she had struck a shopping trolley, Harrow crown court was told. The driver escaped a jail sentence.
Hands-free use of phones has been shown to be more distracting to drivers than talking on a mobile. Perhaps drivers need to take everything about driving a little more seriously. A significant proportion of motorists appear to use a car like a washing machine; switch it on and then think about something else. Multi-tasking behind the wheel has become commonplace; eating, talking, arguing, changing music, checking makeup and admonishing children while driving are rarely perceived as posing a danger to ourselves or others. However, research carried out by the AAA Foundation for Traffic in Washington, DC, suggests that even seemingly minor tasks can be distracting.
Researchers asked participants to carry out tasks that ranged in complexity from listening to music up to verifying a number mathematical equations – memorising nouns between each calculations. The tasks were carried out at a desk top, at the controls of a driving simulator and finally behind the wheel of a real car.
The results were consolidated into a single number representative of the mental distraction caused by each task. The participants had their brain waves monitored for ‘event-related potentials’ and at the same time their reaction times were assessed. A score of 1.0 represented doing nothing at all and the maths and word-memory task scored 5.0. The results were surprising:
- Listening to the radio scored 1.21, while having an audio book on the go increased that to 1.75
- Making a hand-free phone call scored 2.27 and a conversation with a passenger in the same car was found to be more distracting at 2.33
- Using a hand-held mobile phone to make a call while driving scored 2.45
- The highest score, 3.06, was attained by those using hands-free texting
Our compulsive behaviour around mobile phones has highlighted by an American study of 1,000 drivers, 98 per cent of whom agreed it was dangerous to text and drive. However, 74 per cent claimed they had done so with 30 per cent saying it is ‘simply a habit’ because they are so used to being connected to their phone, and they believed their driving performance was not impacted by texting.
Dr Greenfield, founder of The Centre for Internet and Technology Addiction and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Connecticut School of Medicine, who worked on the report, said at the time of publication; “We compulsively check our phones because every time we get an update through text, email or social media, we experience an elevation of dopamine, which is a neurochemical in the brain that makes us feel happy. If that desire for a dopamine fix leads us to check our phones while we’re driving, a simple text can turn deadly.”
Research by Nottingham Trent University found that the average user checks their phone 85 times a day and that ‘rapid mobile phone interactions’, less than 30 seconds, are becoming habitual for smartphone users, with many not realising the frequency with which they check their phone.
Young drivers in particular are more likely to be distracted. Just under half of drivers (49%) aged 25–34 admitted they sometimes go online or use apps while driving. Almost a third of drivers in the same age group said they do this several times a week at least.
These compulsive habits are both dangerous and illegal. Drivers are four times more likely to be in a crash if they are using a phone whilst driving, and their reaction times are two-times slower than those drink-driving.
Police believe more road accidents are caused by drivers using their mobile phones at the wheel than is currently shown in official records. Half of those surveyed also agreed the role of phones was even overlooked in fatal crashes.
It always takes time before the law and social convention catch up with this kind of news – it took decades for drink driving to be considered unacceptable behaviour – but in the meantime, the safest course of action is to switch off your mobile entirely.
The French government looks likely to strip motorists of their driving licences when they are caught using their mobile phones at the wheel.
The plan forms part of a range of new measures aimed at reducing road danger including a cut in speed limit on country roads to 80km/h.
Driver’s caught using a mobile look likely to face a three-month suspension of their driving licence. Currently, drivers in France using a mobile phone at the wheel face a fine of €135 and three penalty points.
However, in common with Britain, increased fines and penalty have not stopped the dangerous habit. In 2015 alone, 300,000 drivers in France were fined after being caught using their phone. As with speeding, it seems likely the only measure that will curb dangerous mobile phone use behind the wheel will be a further proliferation of cameras.