We join Surrey’s traffic cops patrolling the motorways in the cab of a Mercedes-Benz Actros HGV – the front line in the fight against distracted driving
15 April 2018

It’s Friday morning on the M25 and the observer in the front passenger seat of the police vehicle I’m sitting in has spotted a woman on her mobile phone at the wheel of a Range Rover ahead of us.

We accelerate alongside to enable him to film the woman on his video camera.

It’s a good ‘spot’ since she’s holding the phone in her left hand and pressing it tight against her ear. The driver of a passing car would be unlikely to see her using it, except this isn’t a passing car – it’s the latest weapon in the fight against distracted drivers: a Mercedes-Benz Actros HGV cab.

The vehicle gives the police a clear view of car drivers below them and truckers alongside. Although the Actros is now casting a dark shadow over the Range Rover’s interior, including the young boy strapped into his booster seat in the front, the driver continues to talk into her mobile phone – until she catches sight of the police officer filming her.

The observer relays details of her vehicle and the offence to his colleagues in two unmarked police cars following behind. The truck pulls away in search of more distracted drivers while one of the teams directs her to follow them to Cobham services, where she can be dealt with safely.

Welcome to Highways England’s three-year road-safety initiative, launched in February. It has loaned three HGV cabs to 28 police forces covering the north, the Midlands and the south-east. They will patrol motorways and main trunk roads looking for drivers using their mobile phones at the wheel, a practice that is a factor in an average of two deaths on UK roads every month.

“For me, the tipping point was the crash on the A34 in 2016 when the driver of a truck, who moments before had been changing music tracks on his mobile phone, drove his vehicle into the back of a stationary car, killing all four of its occupants,” says Colin Evans, Highways England safety officer for the south-east.

“Enforcement is the police’s job, but they’re under pressure. Our spotter cabs will help them catch people who don’t understand that, in the hands of a distracted driver, a vehicle is a battering ram.”

During a two-year trial, one HGV cab was instrumental in spotting 4176 drivers in relation to 5039 offences. Just as importantly, publicity surrounding its deployment helped influence driver behaviour and spread the message that distracted driving kills.

It’s the turn of Surrey Police to use Highways England’s south-east- region spotter cab (it’s recently come from a two-week stint with Kent Police). As the team mills around it and the two unmarked intervention cars that will process offenders, as well as spot them, the squad commander announces that last week’s Surrey Police team dealt with 54 cars, 26 HGVs (half of them on foreign numberplates) and 16 vans on its section of the M25.

Today’s team will spend the morning patrolling the motorway between junction 14 and Cobham services. I take my place in the spotter cab behind Ben, the observer, and Tony, the driver, both of them police officers. A few minutes later, we’re on the A3 heading for the M25. Without a speed restrictor and a trailer to pull, the Actros easily closes in on anyone Ben suspects is using a handheld phone or on a hands-free call and not in proper control of their vehicle.

Soon we have our first ‘phoner’. He’s in a Mercedes E-Class in the outside lane, holding his phone low and looking down at it. Given he’s to Ben’s right, he is impossible to video but appears to be texting. Ben reports what he’s seen to the intervention team. One of the unmarked cars peels off and pulls the Mercedes over. The driver is given three points and a £100 fine since he wasn’t in proper control of his car.

The spotter cab never stops but continues on its way. Two minutes later, Ben spots a woman clearly texting at the wheel of her Vauxhall Corsa with her phone held in front of the steering wheel. He relays the footage to his colleagues who give her the full six points and a £200 fine. It won’t stop there: a survey of insurers by the AA found that drivers who receive such a penalty can expect their insurance premium to rise by up to 40% on renewal, while almost half of the companies it questioned said they would refuse to quote.

For a truck driver, it’s more serious still. They might be dismissed by their employer, who could also face losing their operator’s licence. The fear of receiving this new, harsher penalty for using a handheld phone while driving, introduced in March 2017, contributed to a 47% decline in the overall number of fixed penalty notices handed out by police from March to December 2017 (39,000 compared with 74,000 in the same period in 2016). Other factors included more effective safety campaigns but also a reduction in enforcement due to a decline in the number of traffic police. Highways England’s loan of three spotter cabs should help boost their efficiency.

Ben spots a minicab driver speaking into his phone but he leaves the motorway by a slip road and is gone before one of the intervention cars can find him.

“Because he’s a cab driver, he’ll get a warning letter,” says Ben. Next, he spots a highway maintenance van driver steering with his elbows as he unwraps a burger. He’s given £100 and three points.

My last spot with the team is the lady phoning from her Range Rover. She follows the unmarked police car into the services. The spotter cab pulls in, too, allowing me to jump out and ask if she was aware of the risks she was running. She’s too upset to talk.

“I fined her £200 and six points,” the police officer tells me. “With her son in the front passenger seat, she should have known better.”

Hers is just one of the four penalties the police teams hands out that day for using a handheld phone while driving (a £200 fine and six points). In addition, it gives out a further seven for not being in proper control of a vehicle (£100 and three points).

I ask the officer why the Range Rover driver risked using her phone: “She’d been speaking to her husband via Bluetooth but he was getting stressed out because he couldn’t hear her – so he told her to pick up her phone and talk directly into it.”

What the law says: 

It is illegal to use a handheld mobile phone or similar device while driving, except to call 999 or 112 in an emergency when it is unsafe or impractical to stop. This means a driver cannot make or receive a call, send text messages, use apps or access the internet with a handheld device while their vehicle’s engine is running.

The penalty for using a handheld phone while driving is £200 and six points, and is called a CU80, defined as a “breach of requirements as to control of the vehicle, such as using a mobile phone”.

You can use a hands-free phone, including one mounted in a cradle, but you must remain in proper control of the vehicle, otherwise the penalty, also called a CU80, is £100 and three points.

John Evans 

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Comments
16

15 April 2018

 Using a handheld is never going to go away completely, there will always be a Driver who will risk it, until they pass a law where In Car tech does allow you to use your hand held mobile, where only a built in system is standard, fines and points for some doesn’t bother, some have clever lawyers who get them off, I’ve heard of People with over 30 points still driving, the only way to get it across is crush there Car there and then, but I guess that will be a civil rights matter...!

Peter Cavellini.

15 April 2018

How many people have they stopped and given 6 points to for vaping or using e-cigarettes?   Or even smoking?

 

None.

 

But that's a driver distraction so why don't they pursue with the same viciousness?

 

15 April 2018
Symanski wrote:

How many people have they stopped and given 6 points to for vaping or using e-cigarettes?   Or even smoking?

 

None.

 

But that's a driver distraction so why don't they pursue with the same viciousness?

 

I agree with smoking/vaping if they're distracted, but visiousness is not how I'd describe tackling this - I'd say it's an essential thing to do. Fair to say that most folk have seen someone do something stupid driving while on a mobile? I see it every week on the main street of the village I live in, and theyre happily looking down while kids and old people are waiting to cross, cars coming out of junctions, etc.

 

15 April 2018
Paul Dalgarno wrote:

I agree with smoking/vaping if they're distracted, but visiousness is not how I'd describe tackling this - I'd say it's an essential thing to do. 

It's supposed to be if you're interacting with the phone that they give out points.   Not if you're just holding it.   So if you moved it from out your pocket to get a better signal whilst using the Bluetooth you'll get 6 points.   They're being vicious, and quite frankly have lost my support.

 

Especially when I've seen police officiers using phones whilst driving.   Both texting and with the phone to their ear.   It's ok for them?

 

 

16 April 2018

No, youre NOT allowed to hold your phone when driving.

XXXX just went POP.

16 April 2018
typos1 wrote:

No, youre NOT allowed to hold your phone when driving.

 

What about vaping devices?   They've got a button you've got to press and you've got to hold it to your mouth.   If that's not more distracting than simply holding a phone, then why?

 

You can have your phone working on Bluetooth and get 6 points just because you're holding it.   But you can go without any charges lighting cigarettes, smoking, or using a vaping device that you've got to swith on.

 

And don't forget that when you're using your phone to pay at a drive-through to collect your 6 points at the next window.

 

289

15 April 2018

Whilst I abhor this trend to text on the move, (usually non- important social media crap anyway), there is no call so urgent that we should risk other road users lives for. The Police are just scratching the surface here.

 I spend a lot of my life on the highways of England, and probably see at least half a dozen people engaged in mobile interaction PER MILE....and thats without actually looking for it as I am more concerned with getting to my destination safely. If I was in  the passenger seat with time to kill, I cant imagine how many I would see. 

Its all part of this obsession with 'smart' phones. Users cant even be bothered to check for traffice whilst crossing a road    due to being engrossed in their phones. This apparent lack of self preservation hints at the scale of the problem.

The only way this will be stopped is for mobile phones to have technology fitted as standard which doesnt allow use in the car when moving. It is not difficult - Waze for example doesnt allow you to input a destination on its sat-nav app whilst on the move.

The problem here is that its like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas....phone companies want you to make MORE calls- not less. Thats why they havent sorted this mess out all ready, but they should take care here as there is such a thing as corporate man-slaughter, especially as the technology exists to address the issue.

On a slightly seperate issue, Surrey Police would do well to spend the time pushing the Surrey county council to repair their dangerous roads if they are concerned about safety. The A3 has horrendous craters in it on a 3 lane highway with cars close together moving at speed, and the A/B roads are cratered on corners throwing cars into oncoming traffic paths as suspension struggles to cope with the lack of tyre contact .

But that would I guess would be too much to hope!

 

16 April 2018
289 wrote:

The only way this will be stopped is for mobile phones to have technology fitted as standard which doesnt allow use in the car when moving. It is not difficult - Waze for example doesnt allow you to input a destination on its sat-nav app whilst on the move.

 

 

This would mean that anyone using Andorid Auto/Apple Car Play or an Android headunit (which allow voice control and/or control via the SWC) may not be able to use them  theres nothing wrong with entering a destination o dialling using your voice.

XXXX just went POP.

289

16 April 2018

....would that be the end of the world Typos....in the grand scheme of things?

15 April 2018

Interesting peice. It's all a bit of a grey area though isn't it? If you have a phone connected via bluetooth to the car's screen, you're still scrolling through numbers - on the car's screen. How that constitutes being in full control..is anyone's guess. 

There's also the thing of sitting in heavy traffic, with the car stationery for periods. From the law's perspective, that's still a crime? I guess that's one good use of start-stop...if you can prove the engine was off while you were texting in the traffic jam..

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