woman holding phone

Safety campaigners get hung up on phones

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That’s a relief. We’re finished with Movember, in which people try, or fail, to grow convincing moustaches to draw attention to prostate cancer charities, and with the awkwardly named NaNoWriMo, in which people try, or fail, to write novels. And we’ve had Road Safety Week.

An obvious, but important, thing to remember about events such as these is that they are not dates fixed in the calendar by history, like the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, or geography and stronomy, like the Summer Solstice, or religious celebrations which have been observed annually for hundreds or even thousands of years, like Passover or Christmas.

Road Safety Week was devised by road safety lobbyists as an excuse to draw attention to their campaigns, like National No Smoking Day, created by the anti-tobacco lobby. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that; indeed, such schemes appear to be a fairly effective method of drawing attention to a particular charity or special interest group’s cause.

They also put a date in the diary for journalists whose attention the campaigners would like to attract, and provide an excuse for those journalists to report the case the activists are trying to advance. This symbiotic relationship gives news outlets copy and the charities concerned a platform to raise public awareness and spark debate.

But it occasionally raises the suspicion that the reports which result are deliberately provocative or, as opponents of whichever campaign is promoting its cause sometimes argue, “exposes the real agenda”. In either case, it usually involves suggesting a ban on something currently thought perfectly normal by many ordinary people, and looks disproportionate.

The history of such campaigns shows, however, that they often work very well. Quite often, the general public is won round over time, and what seemed like draconian prescriptions gain wider support. Campaigns for compulsory seat belts and for a smoking ban – whatever your own views on them – certainly fall into that category.

The latest example was the call by the campaigning group Brake for a ban on all mobile phone use – including hands-free sets ­­– in cars. Since many hands-free sets are designed especially for use in cars, and since mobile phone use without them (or indeed with them, if it can be proven that the driver was distracted) has been illegal for 10 years, some commentators were quick to argue that this proposal is a step too far.

And Brake’s figures, obtained under a Freedom of Information request, showing that more than half a million drivers have points on their licences for using mobile phones or being otherwise distracted, don’t do anything to support their specific argument against hands-free kits. They simply tell us the number of drivers who have been penalised for being in breach of the existing law.

The more substantive argument being advanced is in their claims that research indicates that 98% of drivers are unable to “divide their time” without it affecting their driving. As well as mobile phone use, that includes eating, drinking and smoking. Even if this research is robust, however, it would be far from straightforward to translate it into legislation.

As things stand, the police already have the power to stop and arrest any driver whom they believe is not in control of his or her vehicle. Those who argue that using the phone, even on a hands-free kit, is intrinsically more dangerous than, say, listening to the radio, or even conducting a conversation with your passengers may or may not be right. But in theory, doing any of those things could already be used by the authorities to prosecute you, if evidence could be produced that suggested that your driving was adversely affected by them. The more practical difficulty, which is worth examining in another post, is that the future of many in-car technologies – many of them intended to improve safety – is already predicated on digital solutions, and often involve connecting to a phone.

 

 

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