New mobile phone detection technology trialled in Norfolk

11.50 | 10 July 2018 | | 29 comments

A new mobile phone detection system, the first of its kind to be used on UK roads, has become operational in Norfolk.

The system has been developed by Norfolk County Council in partnership with vehicle activated signs manufacturer Westcotec, as part of efforts to deter motorists from using mobile phones at the wheel.

Using the latest technology the unit identifies what type of signal is being transmitted by the handset and whether it is being used via the vehicle’s Bluetooth system.

When the relevant signal is detected – indicating that a mobile phone is being used within the vehicle – the road sign is activated as the vehicle passes, giving a flashing visual message intended to prompt the driver to stop using their phone.

However, at present there is no facility to record a vehicle’s number plate – although Norfolk County Council says this is likely to be a future development.

From today (10 July), the technology is being trialled in four locations across Norfolk. The detection units will remain at these sites for a month, before being moved to a new location.

Diane Steiner, Norfolk County Council’s deputy director of public health, said: “Our priority is to make Norfolk a healthy and safe place to live and the new technology enables us to provide a reminder to drivers who may be using their handset whilst driving.  

“Whilst this is still not a perfect science, the new generation of sign is significantly more accurate and reliable than the first.”

As part of the trial, Norfolk County Council’s road safety team will be working closely with Norfolk Police to share statistics provided by the detection system.

Inspector Jonathan Chapman, Norfolk Roads Policing unit, said: “This scheme is a good example of how we can work with local authorities to make using a mobile phone whilst driving as socially unacceptable as drink or drug-driving.

“Any scheme which prevents this kind of behaviour is welcomed. Using a mobile phone at the wheel is one of the fatal four road offences which can have devastating consequences if it causes a fatal or serious collision.

“We will be using the information provided by Norfolk County Council’s road safety team to help us target drivers in the future but the message is simple – leave your phone alone whilst you’re behind the wheel.”

Chris Spinks, specialist product sales, Westcotec, said: “Being a local company we’re delighted to be able to trial this technology first within Norfolk.

“We’ve worked very closely with the road safety team at Norfolk County Council to get to this position and are glad that we’re able to assist them in promoting awareness about the dangers of mobile phone use in the car.”



Comment on this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Report a reader comment

Order by Latest first | Oldest first | Highest rated | Lowest rated

    My vehicle has a full telematics system that allows both Bluetooth connections to your mobile, OR I can opt for the built in telephone that has a separate SIM card. My system also has voice commands for most infotainment and communications options, so if I choose to use my in-built car phone this means I will likely get a fine in the post for doing nothing illegal!

    It annoys me intensely that they roll out this kind of knee jerk reaction technology without having researched or thought about all eventualities or scenarios.

    How the heck I am supposed to provide evidence of any call made using the internal car phone I don’t know – especially as this device does not record photographic images we are told. I cannot export logs from the car’s Head Unit.

    Maverick, Carmarthen
    Agree (1) | Disagree (0)

    Dave Finney – Point 1 in my post included the phrase “and the reasons why it is being introduced”. I intended that to include the evidence bit as you mention but for reasons of time etc I did not detail all bits that make up “the reasons” in full.

    I am beginning to realise that these posts are scrutinized with very fine “fine toothed-combs” and sometimes there just isn’t time to be as complete as I would like.

    I can confirm that I would never expect a law to be made without evidence being published as to the need for the law. I am sure there is a whole discussion on the type and robustness of the evidence to be had (actually I expect that it already has been had several times in these items)

    Billy – I think the main reasons people carry on using handhelds even when they know it is wrong and dangerous are the same reasons why other illegal/dangerous driving/non-driving acts are carried out. Mainly because they think it won’t happen to them and also they are unlikely to get caught. (I accept there are complex physiological processes going on but do not have the time/ability to research them and add them here)

    Nick Hughes, Preston
    Agree (1) | Disagree (0)

    That’s only part of the picture, Billy.

    The law states: “No person shall drive a motor vehicle on a road if he is using—(a)a hand-held mobile telephone”

    but goes on to state: “a mobile telephone or other device is to be treated as hand-held if it is, or must be, held at some point during the course of making or receiving a call or performing any other interactive communication function”.

    Therefore these “interactive communications” are illegal when hand-held:

    call, text, email or similar

    and these activities, that are not “interactive communications”, are legal even when hand-held:

    run a sat-nav, take a photo, use as dictophone or similar.

    Is that the correct interpretation of the law? Here:

    dave finney, Slough
    Agree (3) | Disagree (1)

    There isn’t anything wrong with using a directional mobile telephone transmission detector as an indication to a driver that his vehicle is highly likely to have been the source of a telephone call.
    It sends the driver a message that it is easy to detect that mobile telephone calls made by a driver using a hand-held mobile telephone is unlawful.

    Is it dangerous and do we need to run “…RCT scientific trials” to determine that? Yes it does present a danger that is greater than that posed by a driver who is concentrating on driving only compared to one who is not doing so and is splitting the conscious mind to more than the driving task. Do we need a scientific trial to determine whether a human can do 2 tasks at the same time equally as well as one task? No we don’t, that is already well established.

    It is simply not logical and fairly obvious why people complain about “machine detection” of violations of driving regulations; they want to be able to carry on doing it without being detected and punished for it. Further to that they cite a preference to be caught by a traffic officer…bonkers!

    If a person knows that a behavior, using a hand-held mobile telephone while driving in this discussion, is unlawful and yes, dangerous too, then why do they continue to do it when they know that? The answer of course is they know there is very little chance of being caught and there is even less chance of having police officers at every corner awaiting motorists barrelling down the road while they are engaged in a telephone call they can complete when they are not driving.

    It is disturbing that there are comments on here from divers who think that it is OK to use hand-held mobile telephones while driving if they are exchanging data but not on a telephone call. There is a reason why the regulations says it is an offence to “USE” a hand-held mobile telephone while driving and “USE” is not further defined. It is so that the police need not make extensive forensic investigations into what use the driver was putting the hand-held mobile telephone while driving.

    The regulation does describe a hand-held mobile telephone, what it does not do is combine that description with the offence. So all of the What’s Oop, Twatter and GPS navigation users that do so while driving and holding their mobile telephone commit the offence.

    This device is a complex detector that performs a simple informative function. If it was combined with a video recorder that effectively captured drivers obviously on their hand-held mobile telephone while driving it would be an effective capture and filter device to use in prosecutions. Hey, it could even present the films to a traffic officer who could verify the actions of the driver so providing a sap to those who want the human touch.

    Drivers who are not on the phone at the time can simply remark to their passenger “you’ve been spotted”. Alternatively or possibly at the same time for those drivers who not only can do 2 things at the same time but 3, can simply consider “that may have spotted me on the phone…maybe I shouldn’t be. I can’t see why there are any negatives with this device.

    Billy Lewins, Sunderland
    Agree (12) | Disagree (3)

    That’s true, Nick, but you’re missed out the most fundamental step. For “acceptance by the population” there should be evidence that proves the banned behavior is actually dangerous. This really ought to come before the 3 you cite.

    The effect of failure to use the best evidence is that your step 1 becomes an exercise in deception, step 2 requires the evidence to be denied, and step 3 leads to distrust that can spill out in many unexpected ways.

    The solution is simple and cheap. Stop considering road safety to be politics and start using an evidence-led approach. And that starts with RCT scientific trials.

    dave finney, Slough
    Agree (5) | Disagree (4)

    It is my understanding that for a law to “work” or perhaps be “accepted by the population” there needs to be three strands complimenting each other.
    1. the population need to be be informed about the legislation and the reasons why it is being introduced (Education?)
    2. the population need to be reminded about the existence of the legislation and nudged towards conforming (Engagement?)
    3. those of the population which then “choose” to behave in a manner which contravenes the legislation should expect that someone may catch them at it. (Enforcement?)
    This sort of sign appears to fit in with the engagement aspect of the list above. I do not think the signs will cause any collisions and they appear to be able to get a message across to vehicle occupants in a non-threatening way so I look forward to hearing about the evaluation of the initiative later on.

    Nick Hughes, Preston
    Agree (1) | Disagree (0)

    Phones used by people other than the driver. – False positive.
    Phones used via a headset, rather than BlueTooth, even if they are being used by the driver. – False positive.
    Phones by the driver through using the speakerphone capability and having the phone in a holder. – False positive.

    Then there are cars with a built-in mobile connection (typically used for emergency/concierge/support calls). To external electronic observation it would appear to be just another phone call, only there wouldn’t be a BlueTooth signal to compliment it. Granted, the probability is low, but still it would be another false positive.

    The argument that the sign can just be ignored when it displays false positives is weak; years of electronic road signs displaying incorrect information have lead to complacency already. Deliberately choosing to reinforce such complacency is short-sighted at best, and ignorant, arrogant and unprofessional at the other end of the scale.

    The Faraday cage option is dangerous, as are technologies which prevent the use of the phone when the phone detects it is moving; both would prevent use of the phone in circumstances where assistance is require. Both could also prevent valid use of a phone by someone who is not a driver. Is someone seriously suggesting preventing teenagers from accessing their precious games, social networks and other entertainment?

    Clearly something needs to be done about the quantity of drivers who continue to drive carelessly and without thought for others. Is this the solution? Not yet, clearly. There are far too many factors which need to be fixed to make it work reliably.

    Will an information system, as it is currently proposed to be operated, be effective? Unlikely. Peer pressure can play a great part in making illegal and irresponsible mobile phone use whilst driving socially unacceptable but some people will continue on regardless. For these people, reliable fines and other penalties will be the only way to make them understand.

    We already have plenty of evidence that lack of enforcement breeds complacency; you just have to observe how many people exceed the signed speed limits to realise that – any law which isn’t complied with and enforced isn’t really worth having. Indeed, that there is even a specific law against mobile phone use is somewhat bizarre; guidelines to the judiciary could been issued regarding the application of exiting laws would have better all round. Anyway, I digress. Yes, testing is needed, so good on the company developing the technology. How the technology is used and perceived needs to be carefully managed and it needs to be significantly more mature before it can become an effective deterrent, let alone an enforcement mechanism.

    Agree (11) | Disagree (1)

    Not quite sure if you were agreeing with me or not there Rod, however the speed camera vans have been able to video other offences such as ‘phone use for some time and I would hope prosecutions have resulted and just as the speed triggered VASs complement but do not replace the speed cameras, I don’t see why a phone VAS can’t work alongside – but not replace – enforcement.

    If an offender, whether a speeder, tailgater, phone user etc etc is deterred from offending, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter whether it’s as a result of an education intervention or an enforcement intervention – or even a word from a road safety officer.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (4) | Disagree (1)


    I have always taken comments on this site with a pinch of salt. Many commenting have a particular focus and I myself admit to that.

    The use of such signs and VAS is primarily one of communicating a message to a driver. Hence does come under the umbrella of road safety education. It does not take the place of enforcement and should not be confused with enforcement.

    There are ways to enforce mobile phone usage by drivers and I expect many of us are aware that a long focus lens camera on many arterial routes could easily catch criminal drivers as easily as shooting fish in a barrel.

    Yes, there would be the same claims of cash-cows that one gets from the usual suspects whenever enforcement is raised on non-compliance whether it be phones or speeding. But so what. We need real deterrents as well as the pretty-please education. Both education and enforcement have their place and are equally reliant on each other.

    Rod King, Lymm, Cheshire
    Agree (6) | Disagree (4)

    Judging by some of the negative comments on this particular initiative, it seems local authorities/safety partnerships are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If one of these signs flashes, causing a driver to come off their ‘phone and prevent a collision that otherwise would have happened, then it is justified – a similar effect would no doubt be obtained if a police vehicle appears in the immediate vicinity of a ‘phone user as well – but neither scenario can be proven.

    VASs, if intelligently placed, are effective, whether it’s speed reduction or other hazard warning or just ‘messages’. Parallel universes to see what would, or wouldn’t have happened, would be a useful thing in road safety interventions. Until then, professional judgment and common sense on what is worth doing should prevail.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (12) | Disagree (1)

    Andre – I think Iain Temperton from Norfolk County Council has explained further down this discussion thread that the council has not bought the signs, but are simply partnering with the manufacturer in a trial – so there is no ‘senseless use of public money’

    Nick Rawlings, editor, Road Safety News
    Agree (11) | Disagree (1)

    Here’s another example of how senselessly you lose public money ….
    No court will consider such experiments as evidence in the case….

    Agree (4) | Disagree (8)

    I think the question of making a car a Faraday cage has already been looked into and I believe for it to work, the car would have to run on its rims so it can be properly grounded and also have mesh over the windows. Technical explanations are available on the Internet.

    Note: there is a new story on the news feed highlighting a mobile phone ‘signal blocker’ although it does seem to require the device to be put in a specially lined pouch, in which case if the driver is prepared to do that voluntarily, they could just as easily switch it off.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (3) | Disagree (0)

    What if u use the phone as a sat nav???

    Rachel, Notringham
    Agree (5) | Disagree (0)

    Can any of the technology being called for to make phones inoperable in vehicles differentiate between driver and passenger use?

    Nick Hughes
    Agree (7) | Disagree (1)

    I think it was Westcotec who, when I was working, we discussed with, the possibility of the development and manufacture of a portable, large, programmable, variable message sign to go on the road side with, a a couple of hundred metres upstream as it were, a spotter who would, via radio signal, trigger the sign to light up for the offending approaching driver with: “PHONE”! “SPEED!” “SEATBELTS!” etc. as required. As it was in North Wales, the sign would have had to be bi-lingual which led to size issues, so it was shelved. Would still be a good idea though.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (2) | Disagree (6)

    Old News – The good folk of Sussex have already taken this route

    Andrew, Gloucester
    Agree (3) | Disagree (0)

    So you are alerting people who are using the device “hands free”, which is acceptable by law……my phone dials by voice command so NO interaction is needed other than
    “Dial xxxx”
    “Navigate to xxxxx”

    So totally pointless signs…..also you are intercepting communications from my phone….data protection?

    Mark, Glasgow
    Agree (20) | Disagree (7)

    Why not make cars faraday cages…. simples.

    Agree (4) | Disagree (3)

    On the other hand Mr Hopkinson, as you are “..all for more police on the road to tackle poor driving in every aspect..” you would presumably have no objection to these police officers you want to see more of, issuing fines to offenders, as opposed to the ‘lazy greed machines’? If not, what will they be doing that would be acceptable to you – the offences are the same, similarly detected and with the same penalties.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (3) | Disagree (3)

    To answer the questions posed below:

    We are not buying the sign, this is a partnership trial between ourselves and the sign manufacturers to run a long term test with a series of intended outcomes. There is obviously some officer time involved, but I am very comfortable that is a good investment; I am proud to work for a local authority that is willing to innovate and take some risk, I am also grateful that we have a local company that is at the forefront of this technology. Hopefully this will take us to a place where automatic enforcement of mobile phone use is possible.

    The argument of spending the money on pothole repairs does not resonate with me. There are a significant number of drivers on our road network who choose to endanger themselves and other road users by choosing to ignore both best practice and a straightforward legal requirement. This is just one approach amongst many others. We are fixing potholes as well.

    As for the technology side, the device can tell the difference between various uses of the phone. Don’t ask me how (I suspect witchcraft), but I have witnessed some of the extensive testing and it does work. It can tell the difference between data / text / calls, 3G and 4G, as it currently stands it can isolate a call being made without Bluetooth, which is what we have set it for. Yes, I could be driving past it making a What’sApp call, but most people won’t be. The sign does not flash for the majority of cars, it is selective and accurate.

    The science isn’t perfect, but it is very good, certainly good enough to be trialled. I would much rather try something out based upon research and evidence than do nothing other than current practice. If we want to reduce poor road behaviour we need to try something different. If it doesn’t work, we will learn from that. If it does we will move it forward. Either way we learn.

    Iain Temperton
    Road Safety Team Manager
    Norfolk County Council

    Iain Temperton, Norfolk
    Agree (34) | Disagree (13)

    The sad thing is that the only reliable way of improving road safety is to use police officers and because they are a net cost, government, local or otherwise, won’t sanction them. Cameras for speed or phones are net money makers, in their millions, hence the willingness to invest initially before raking in the cash. I am all for more police on the road to tackle poor driving in every aspect. Cameras are lazy greed machines.

    duncan hopkinson, leicester
    Agree (12) | Disagree (7)

    So many things wrong with this…..

    The people on their phones are not paying attention to the road, which seriously lowers the chance of them seeing any visual warning to stop using their phone

    It also won’t be able to tell the difference between who is using the phone in the car, it could be a passenger and not the driver, nor will it likely be able to tell what the phone is being used for, I regularly use mine as a music player which is connected to a streaming app etc. It is also possible to make calls over things like facebook and whatsapp, this could be done using a headset not bluetooth, I don’t connect mine, just use the earphones, so it wouldn’t think I was on bluetooth.

    My satnav also has a data card in there which uses data to update traffic, and a lot of people use mobiles for google maps etc, again, always using data as it goes along.

    This will literally be flashing up on a majority percentage of cars, and would be just as effective if it was just a sign, even an illuminated one, as one with any fancy technology to see if a phone is being used.

    And should they try in the future to use that to prosecute people then it will bring up a lot of false fines for any of the above reasons.

    What happened to just putting some police out there on the streets that can see these things with their own eyes and deal with it?

    Wayne, Shropshire
    Agree (34) | Disagree (3)

    Where is the money coming from for all this? And how much will it cost as a project? Ball park figure. Perhaps the money would be better invested in repairing the damaged roads that are in abundance and potentialy more dangerous as motorists try to avoid the holes.

    Martin Ward, East Midlands
    Agree (19) | Disagree (10)

    What about the in car sim card that is for data not phones, will it pick them up too?

    tony bevan, london
    Agree (5) | Disagree (1)

    Yes, we know it doesn’t tell the difference between the driver and passenger and we are happy to accept that, on that basis it acts like a plate sign on that occasion. The value is when it lights up for the errant driver who is holding the phone. Drivers using mobile phones is the biggest complaint from all types of road user, we will explore all possibilities and opportunities to influence this negative behaviour. Whilst the solutions are still being developed, we need to take a step forward to make progress.

    Iain Temperton, Norwich
    Agree (11) | Disagree (11)

    Mobile phone use in a vehicle can be stopped. The phone signal can be barred inside the vehicle. Apple, Samsung, Nokia and others say it can be done, but they won’t do it until the government make it law for all phone manufacturers due to the fact it would ruin their phone sales. I wonder why the government won’t make it law. Would it be all those £200 are gone?

    Raymond Smith, Liskeard
    Agree (4) | Disagree (11)

    Something to bear in mind is that many vehicles use the mobile telephone network for diagnostics, interactive services and uhm… measuring data for the purposes of insurance!

    David Weston, Corby
    Agree (7) | Disagree (1)

    The article does not say if the technology can determine between driver use and passenger use of phones. If it cannot do this then the signing will not be accurate and if not accurate it will not be trusted by the public. I can see that the police will get data feeds so perhaps this is the major benefit in assisting targeted enforcement down the road, presumably using the mark one eyeball to prove use before ticketing.

    Peter Whitfield, Liverpool
    Agree (20) | Disagree (3)

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.