The RAC calls it an ‘epidemic’, which it claims is the greatest danger to road safety. Surveys suggest one in three drivers use a hand-held mobile phone while driving. Now the government is preparing to take drastic action on mobile phone use at the wheel: it plans to introduce life sentences for killer drivers.
Sam Gyimah, the Justice Minister, said killer drivers should face the same sentences as those charged with manslaughter. Drivers who kill would be hit with a life sentence.
“Killer drivers ruin lives,” said Gyimah. “Their actions cause immeasurable pain to families, who must endure tragic, unnecessary losses. While impossible to compensate for the death of a loved one, we are determined to make sure the punishment fits the crime. My message is clear: if you drive dangerously and kill on our roads, you could face a life sentence.”
The government will hold a consultation on the proposed changes before the end of the year. Sentences are currently limited to 14 years. The consultation includes a life sentence for drivers who cause a death by speeding or street racing. Anyone convicted of causing death while driving under the influence of drink or drugs will face life too.
The government recently revealed that the fine for using a mobile phone at the wheel – even when stationary in traffic – would double in 2017. Drivers would get six penalty points on their licence and be hit with a £200 fine.
The government stresses that the UK has one of the best road safety records in the world. But campaigners say not enough has been done to tackle the growing problem of driver distraction.
Police can’t cope with rise in driver distraction
Conviction rates for using a mobile phone at the wheel have plunged to half the level they were four years ago. In 2014, a little over 16,000 drivers were convicted for using their phone. In 2010, police caught and convicted more than 32,500 motorists. Penalty notices have fallen from 124,700 to 29,700 over the same period.
Campaigners say that Britain’s depleted police forces are unable to cope with the problem. Brake, a charity that supports victims of road accidents, says: “The UK needs solid investment in road-traffic policing, to crack down on dangerous drivers and enforce the law.”
However, distraction by dashboard screens is threatening to overtake the phenomenon of mobile phone use at the wheel.
Complex infotainment systems
Chief executive of Highways England, Jim O’ Sullivan, says car makers are failing to ensure safety measures keep pace with complex ‘infotainment’ systems.
There are no legally enforced safety standards overseeing driver distraction by infotainment system
These infotainment devices allow drivers to operate their phone, sat nav, music and, in some cases, their social media accounts. Drivers can even adjust the suspension and make the engine more responsive in some cars.
O’Sullivan told The Sunday Times: “If the user technology in the car is becoming more engaging, it is essential that the safety technology is equally advanced and protects both the occupants of the vehicle and other road users.”
Currently, driver distraction by infotainment systems is not governed by any legally enforced or voluntary standards.
However, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said more cars feature technology to combat driver distraction. These include automatic emergency braking systems that step in to avoid or limit the effects of a crash.
With car makers competing to offer customers more in-car connectivity, the issue of driver distraction by high-tech gadgets could become as big a problem as mobile phone use.
James is a motoring journalist and former magazine editor at BBC Top Gear and Auto Express. He has scooped, reported on and reviewed most new cars of the past 20 years, and currently contributes to the Driving section of The Sunday Times.