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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.