New figures have offered a glimmer that the message on drivers’ illegal phone use might be getting through after tougher punishments were introduced.
According to data release by 38 police forces, around 1,700 fewer drivers were stopped for using a handheld phone at the wheel in the three months after the introduction of the new penalties compared with the previous three months.
In total 14,160 drivers were caught for the offence – which now carries a penalty of six points and a £200 fine – between March and May 2017, down from 15,861 who were stopped between December 2016 and February 2017.
“It is still much too early to tell if the stricter penalties that were introduced in the spring are changing drivers’ behaviour, but these figures perhaps give hope that at least some are starting to get the message”
Pete Williams, RAC
London saw the sharpest fall in drivers caught. Forty-one drivers were stopped after the new penalties came in compared with 124 in the previous period – a drop of 67 per cent. Durham Constabulary stopped 73 drivers, down from 149 (a 51 per cent fall) while Surrey Police caught 279, down from 564 (a 51 per cent fall).
However while 25 forces recorded a fall in the number of drivers caught for the offence, 11 saw a rise and two saw the number unchanged between the two periods. Kent Police caught 337 drivers, up from 237 (a 42 per cent rise), Gwent Police caught 79, up from 56 (a 41 per cent rise) and Leicestershire Police caught 134, up from 98 (a 37 per cent rise).
While the numbers suggest a fall in offending the RAC, which obtained the data, has warned that they could simply reflect changes in enforcement activity.
The figures comes just months after the motoring group’s annual Report on Motoring highlighted how a hard core of more than nine million motorists continue to persist using a handheld phone while they are driving.
RAC road safety spokesman Pete Williams said: “It is still much too early to tell if the stricter penalties that were introduced in the spring are changing drivers’ behaviour, but these figures perhaps give hope that at least some are starting to get the message that driving and using a handheld phone to talk, text or tweet don’t mix.
“We know police forces are running regular targeted campaigns to catch offenders – so one way of reading these new figures is to say that this activity, at least in some parts of the country, is beginning to yield results. But the flipside to this is the possibility that enforcement levels are still much lower than they need to be to stamp out this illegal activity.
“We believe the low overall numbers still represent just the tip of the iceberg. So while we don’t know how many police hours were spent enforcing the law from March, it may be the case that lower numbers of drivers being caught simply reflects a lower level of enforcement in some areas – and the opposite may be true with those forces that caught more drivers.
“The severe cuts in the number of dedicated roads policing officers across the UK – down 27 per cent in the five years to 2015 – continues to be a major source of concern.
“We expect it will be having an impact on enforcement levels – not least because catching people using a handheld phone at the wheel relies on officers observing drivers’ behaviour. There is, as yet, no automated way of catching offenders like there is when it comes to speeding.”