Police lack powers to probe mobile phones crashes

12.00 | 24 November 2016 | | 3 comments

A new study has found that police officers are worried they lack the right powers and resources to properly investigate whether a mobile phone was being used by a driver at the time of a crash.

The University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) study into the reporting and recording of mobile phone involvement in accidents, published today (23 Nov), surveyed 134 road traffic collision investigation officers.

80% of respondents indicated mobile phone involvement in non-fatal accidents is under-reported, with half agreeing the role of phones is even overlooked in fatal crashes.

75% were unable to report the full proportion of collisions in their force area linked with mobile phone use each year. A similar percentage indicated that better mechanisms to quickly analyse and investigate phone usage would be most likely to improve data collection.

The research was led by Dr Paul Pilkington, a senior lecturer in public health at UWE Bristol, working with the National Roads Policing Intelligence Forum.

For his research, Dr Pilkington asked officers across the UK about the procedure they follow in the aftermath of a collision. He was told phones are only routinely seized and analysed in fatal and life-changing injury crashes.

Responses from officers included:

“Due to the costs and timeliness of such enquiries this is an area that, in my view, is under-investigated…if properly investigated each and every time, the proportion of RCTs where phone use was contributory would increase significantly.”

“We take persons to court where we have seen them on their mobile phones and it gets thrown out. That is with a police witness, so it wouldn’t go through on 3rd party evidence.”

Dr Pilkington says the survey findings raise serious questions about investigation tactics, and describes the under-reporting of mobile phone use in collisions as a ‘massive problem’.

He said: “Police officers recognise that using mobile phones while driving is an important risk factor for being involved in a road traffic crash. This is consistent with global estimates of the burden of road traffic related deaths and injuries caused by using a phone while driving.

“But officers in our survey consistently registered concerns about having enough power or resources to investigate whether a mobile phone was being used at the time of a road traffic crash.

“Because of resource and legal considerations, only in fatal and life-changing injury crashes are phones seized and analysed. In all other crash types, including those involving serious injuries, use of mobile phones is usually not investigated.

“To me, this is a massive problem. If the police can’t detect the full extent of this behaviour then we are missing an important part of collision investigation.

“It leaves a significant gap not only in terms of enforcement, but also monitoring of the role of phones in crashes. The result is significant under-reporting of the role of mobile phones in road traffic crashes, as well as inadequate justice for the victims of those affected by the actions of drivers using their phones behind the wheel.”

Want to know more about mobile phones and road safety? 
Online library of research and reports etc – visit the Road Safety Knowledge Centre 
Key facts and summaries of research reports – visit the Road Safety Observatory


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    Charles, I presume you have your tongue firmly in your cheek when you say “STATS19 must accurately reflect phone use”. It is a very imperfect system but we don’t appear to have anything else to step in and replace it just yet. The police have been known from time to time to put a fresh emphasis/ initiative on accurate recording of STATS 19 data by their officers, which presumably means they recognise that the officer who enters the data is/can be a weak link in the system.

    Pat, Wales
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    Charles – For your information, every month we used to routinely carry out discreet surveys of ‘phone useage (same road, same time of day etc. for consistency) and at that time – about four or five years ago – it was one in every hundred drivers. That however was when ‘phones were just for er.. making ‘phone calls and usage was easy to spot i.e. hand to ear. Nowadays I suspect the figure is higher and usage more hazardous because the driver is actually taking his/her eyes of the road to look down at the device’s screen.

    For a current estimate, where traffic moves relatively slowly, simply watch a few hundred vehicles pass the same spot and count how many drivers appear to be using their ‘phones.

    Hugh Jones, Cheshire
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    Given that the police apparently confirm that they routinely seize phones and analyse usage in fatal and life-changing injury crashes, then the STATS19 must accurately reflect phone use for those types of events. Looking at the 2015 data for just fatal crashes we see the driver was using a phone is 22 out of the 1469 fatal events – 1.5%.

    To be able to begin to properly understand by how much phone usage increases the risk of having a fatal collision in real-world driving conditions we need to get a feel for what proportion of drivers are on the phone at any given moment. If we accept the theory that phone use increases crash risk, then we must conclude that less than 1.5% of drivers are using the phone at any given time. If there are more, they are underrepresented in the crash data, and that would undermine the increased risk theory.

    Charles, England
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