Driving and (smart)phone use

Earlier this week there were a few news stories being run on phone and smartphone use by drivers, not just telephone calls but texting and smartphone usage. Unusually for articles covering criminal behaviour amongst motorists, the tone of these articles was almost universally one of disapproval. The AA survey on which these news items were based reported that at least 40% of motorist text and drive and whilst motoring organisations’ conclusions drawn from their surveys aren’t always all that reliable, it still represents cause for concern.

I suspect that many people reading will hope that smartphone use whilst driving will become the new drink-driving; still a problem but at least now something seen as unacceptable by most people. However, there is a second possibility, it might become the new speeding, which sees almost universal participation amongst motorists who, fed by a motoring lobby keen to convince its members they are victims, often rationalise enforcement against offenders as a somehow-unavoidable and cynical revenue generating activity.

I noticed that the usually far from publicity-shy Association of British Nutters Drivers were quiet on this one, neither wading in to condemn or defend texting drivers. Even the crazy one-man satellite operation, East Midlands “Drivers” (who sadly usually has a lot to say) was oddly quiet on this one.

If the quoted ‘at least 40%’ figure were to become at least 50%, would texting or tweeting whilst driving become as acceptable amongst the motorist community as speeding is now? Suppose in a few years time that there was a feasible way to automatically detect  motorists’ unlawful smartphone use at the wheel, and fine them. If by this point a majority of drivers engaged in this unlawful activity (as is currently the case with speeding) would drivers cease to generally condem this activity and instead act like bleat and moan and act like victims as is often the case at present with speeding enforcement? After all, many of the ways drivers currently rationalise their own speeding or complain about enforcement against their law-breaking can be recycled for texting and driving.

It’ll be interesting to see how attitudes to texting (and general smartphone use) whilst driving develop over the coming years. My own experience suggests that it is on the increase; as smartphones use is growing rapidly, so too are the near misses where van drivers nearly kill me whilst refreshing their Twitter feed.

For now, I shall be on the lookout for a press release from the ABD suggesting that restricting smartphone use amongst drivers actually causes *more* crashes, as poor anxious motorists are coerced into ever more dangerous manoeuvres in order to get home as fast as possible to legally hit the ‘Like’ button. Perhaps they are fabricating gathering their evidence at this very moment.

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5 thoughts on “Driving and (smart)phone use

  1. I guess the social unacceptability of drunk driving was fairly easy to establish because it is relatively easy to make a connection between cause and effect when a drunk driver is involved in an “accident” – assuming the drunk doesn’t manage to flee the scene first, the police attending can and indeed routinely do these days, make the drivers submit to a blood-alcohol test. As alcohol takes time to metabolise, the evidence remains. While people might argue that they can handle their drink, it is widely accepted that actually they are deluding themselves.

    Speeding was always more difficult. If excessive speed causes an incident, there is no enduring pikestaff-plain evidence to connect the incident with the speed. Sure, police investigators can make measurements on the road of things like skid marks, and a lot can be inferred from their findings, but it is not quite as conclusive and may not be enough to satisfy the court, or the court of public opinion. It is also likely to be the case that police will only devote the considerable time and resources to an investigation where the outcome was particularly serious, whereas “Will you blow into this please Sir” takes only a few seconds.

    On that basis there will be plenty of people who will continue to delude themselves that there is little proven connection between speeding and road casualty, so prosecution for speeding is actually persecution, or a revenue raising dodge. Plenty of people will have an inflated view of their own driving skills, thinking themselves to be minor Lewis Hamiltons, while most people will admit that they are not quite all there when they’ve had a few.

    I should imagine that the difficulties for police are multiplied when it comes to mobile phone use or texting. As with speeding they would have to establish a direct contemporaneous connection between the incident and the call/text. Possibly that is more definitive than measuring skid marks, but the initial evidence may be harder to collect – witnesses may have a sense that a car was speeding, even if their sense is not always entirely accurate, but being able to say with certainty that you saw a driver using a handheld phone or texting while driving must be much harder, unless you are actually a passenger in the car.

    The necessary definitive evidence might be more conclusive in the sense that you can prove whether or not a call or text was made or received by examining the activity logs of the relevant cell tower, but matching the exact times to the exact time of the crash could be very difficult – would the witnesses be examining their watches just as the crash occurs?

    Personally, I don’t anything like enough attention is paid to other diversion offences, notably use of Satnav, or smoking, drinking or eating at the wheel. I was once rear-ended by a man in a Range Rover who had been driving erratically and aggressively behind me and then attempted to overtake on a narrow lane, on a bend – while slurping his Caffe Nero with his left hand. He was even covered with the stuff after the impact. I wrote to the police to urge prosecution – no police attended the scene as no-one was injured – and all I got back was a refusal to take action and a notice to present myself within five days at a police station with my driving licence! If I had any faith in the police before that incident, it has all gone now.

    • Taking your comment into account, it seems like texting/smartphone use whilst driving has more in common with speeding than drink driving and considering our long-term road safety trajectory, may be unlikely to continue to attract the same stigma as drink driving. After all, the mainstream press used to regard motorists as destructive speed demons at one time, rather than as blameless victims of legal persecution and local authorities wishing to generate revenue, despite the latter at least being demonstrably false.

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