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The Comedy of Errors

Texting While Driving is Not Okay

27 January 17 words: Ali Emm

Mobile phones. So ubiquitous in today’s society that we can barely go ten minutes without checking them. Must drop your mate a text about plans later. Must have a quick scroll through social media. Must Whatsapp a daft meme. Must check emails. It’s nice to be connected, but sometimes we need to put the damned things down and concentrate on what we’re doing. Especially when we’re driving.

illustration: Joe Symonds

Seeing as it’s illegal to use a hand-held device while operating a vehicle, it may seem like a no-brainer. But the amount of drivers who think it’s okay to check their phone, take a call or send a message, is reaching epidemic proportions. There’s no excuse, and we all need to acknowledge how dangerous it is. And stop.

One family who are acutely aware of the dangers are the Martins. In August 2015, 48-year-old Lee Martin was cycling as part of an organised event on the A31 when he was struck and killed by a van travelling at over 60mph. The man behind the wheel, Christopher Gard, was sending a text at the time, with his young son as a passenger. It was a totally senseless and avoidable death, especially considering that Gard had been on two driver awareness courses, and had been given five fixed penalty notices for using his phone while driving.

There’s no way he should have been allowed to keep his licence after such a blatant disregard for the law. Following Lee’s death, he was sentenced to nine years in prison, and it took him killing someone to have his licence revoked.

Lee left behind a wife, two teenage daughters, two brothers, a mum and dad, all his friends, and he’ll never meet his future grandchildren. Lee’s brother, Nottingham resident Darrell Martin, suggests a way to gauge exactly how little you pay attention to the road while using a phone: “Try sitting in the passenger seat of a car with your eyes shut for nine seconds and see how far you’ve gone. Then try for a minute. Then write a text message and look up. You don’t realise how far you’ve gone.

“Then think about all the implications to your family if one person got killed. Think who’d be upset, how it’d affect them, how their lives might change in five years time, two months time, and immediately. You don’t know it until you go through it, and it’s hideous.”

British police are attempting to crack down on the use of mobile phones in cars and have recently published the results of a week-long campaign that ran in November 2016. The report states that 36 forces stopped over 10,000 cars and handed out 7,966 fixed penalty notices for the offence. That equates to about 47 an hour. As it stands, the penalty is only 3 points and a £100 penalty, but this is due to increase to 6 points and a £200 fine this year. Darrell doesn’t think this is enough of a deterrent, and is calling for an instant ban if you’re caught breaking this law.

“I went on to Radio 4 to talk about how rubbish and pointless the current penalties are, and Stephen Hammond – previously the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport – was on the other line. He reiterated the fact it was being brought up to 6 points and a £200 fine. My argument was that a £200 fine is meaningless to someone who’s rich, and if you’re skint you just pay off a pound a week or a pound a month. It’s meaningless.

“On the one hand, they’re saying they want to treat it like drink driving, but there’s more people out there using their phones than there ever was drink driving. The times that people were drink driving were almost limited to when people were coming out of the pub in the late evening and mid-afternoon because of licensing laws. Now you’ve got people using their phones all day, every day.”

The law does indeed seem skewed, and cases like Lee’s – which was not unique – highlight this. Darrell points out one such inequality, “If you’re driving without insurance, you get 6 points, but driving without insurance won’t make you more likely to crash into someone. A total ban would mean that people would be frightened to lose their cars.”

Much to the dismay of Lee’s family, Gard appealed his court ruling. Held in January 2017, Darrell was pleased with the outcome. “In the appeal case, the three judges pieced together all the facts of the case and smashed the defence to bits. The defence said that [Gard] had nine seconds to see Lee, so it wasn’t that long. The judges argued that the message he was writing would have taken the average person 26 seconds. He must have read the message before, sent the message, read the following message, so the actual time he wasn’t looking at the road was likely to be almost two minutes. That message took priority for him over the safety of those people around him, the people on the road and himself.

“The defence barrister also tried to reduce the sentence by saying that he was only sending a text message, it’s not that big a crime, and everybody does it. The judge’s response was, ‘Put it in a different scenario. If you’d been driving along for that amount of time and it hadn’t been a vulnerable road user – in this case, a cyclist – but a stationary car, a barrier or a slow-moving vehicle. He’d have smashed into one of those and killed himself, and his son.’ At that point on the video, Gard dropped his head. Case over, really.”

The family are trying to see the positives where they can, and Darrell has had people get in touch since his brother’s death. “They’ve contacted me to say that they’ve stopped using their phones themselves, and apologised to me. One friend got in touch and told me that he was in a car with someone that was constantly on their phone. He’d seen my post on Facebook about the BBC interview, and he confronted them to say ‘Look, my friend’s brother’s been killed by someone doing this.’ He said he wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that without that case. Hopefully the sentencing of my brother’s case has made it a bit scarier for those people who need the law to whip themselves into shape. There will be more death on the road this year, without a doubt.”

Darrell also has suggestions about how the driving test should include an awareness test to help reduce the number of road accidents. “People have got so used to the idea of driving that they’ve become immune to the dangers around them. There should be a point where you’re taught the dangers of speeding, not concentrating, and all the other hazards. Pictures and videos should be shown – they have an impact.

“I’ve never been one to get on a bandwagon and campaign against someone. But I’ve been put in a position where people have been forced to listen to me because of the situation, and I’d like to think that something might change.”

I asked Darrell, aside from people putting their phone in their bag or pocket while driving and leaving it there, how people can help make a cultural change that means we don’t dismiss using a phone while driving as just ‘something that everyone does’.

“The Ministry of Justice have an open consultation to see how they can change the law in relation to driving offence and penalties. It’s something that everyone can get engaged with. You can also get in touch with your MP to express your thoughts and what you’d like to see change. It’s a cultural change – that’s what we need. As a population, we need to not think it’s alright to use our phones. Driving is a privilege, not a right.”

If you are reading this before Wednesday 1 February, please voice your opinions on the Ministry of Justice’s Consultation.

And make a stand – if someone is driving while using their phone, tell them to stop or refuse to ride with them.

AA Advice on Texting While Driving

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