Rogue motorists are facing hefty fines after being clocked using mobile phones behind the wheel – as police warned they are dicing with death.
The Gazette joined traffic officers on patrol across Blackpool as they spotted drivers with their phones glued to their ears.
Motorists – who now face £100 fines, a punishment which will double next year - told us a variety of excuses, with one van driver openly admitting he was ringing his goods supplier.
Insp Andy Trotter, from the Road Policing Unit, said: “The consequences of using a mobile while behind the wheel are huge.
“It leaves families devastated and it must stop.”
PC Matt Burn said: “The fact we can turn flashing blue lights on behind them and they don’t even realise says it all.”
And in the space of just 60 minutes over lunchtime on Tuesday, four drivers were pulled over by an unmarked police car, three of whom are now awaiting a letter through the post giving them the option of three points and a fine, an educational course, or a day in court.
Two of those were also reported for speeding, while the fourth motorist is in hot water after being filmed driving at 49mph through a 30mph zone.
PC Burn, who has been on the force for 15 years, said those who do use their mobiles are more likely to also speed, fail to stop at red lights, and commit other traffic offences.
“It’s a general lack of respect for other road users and the law,” he said. “Anyone who is not on the phone finds it annoying to see others on theirs, until they do it, and then it’s suddenly OK.”
And while the RAC’s recent annual report suggests a rising number of motorists are making calls, sending text messages, checking social media sites, and doing whatever else when they should be watching the road is increasing, PC Burn said it’s impossible to tell.
“The stats will be skewed because we might not be checking as many people as before because there’s not as many of us [traffic officers],” he added.
“Until you stand as a civilian and count them day after day, you cannot tell.”
The town’s only unmarked traffic car, a powerful three-litre BMW equipped with an on-board camera, blended in well.
For two hours, Blackpool’s drivers behaved impeccably – but come noon, the car’s ‘blues and twos’, hidden in the front grill, remained almost continuously switched on.
A Mercedes van driver was followed from Preston New Road past Stanley Park after appearing to be holding something. He wasn’t ticketed for using a mobile phone, but didn’t notice the BMW keeping pace with him as he travelled down St Walburga’s Road – past Layton Primary School – at 49mph.
After being stopped, checks revealed the motorist had a previous offence of using a mobile while driving. When challenged, he said: “I got caught and since then I have not used my phone.
“I was in a rush because I have to go to work and wanted my dinner. I will be slowing down.”
Minutes later, another van driver was spotted close to Stanley Park and Blackpool Victoria Hospital, this time with his phone held to his ear for several minutes.
Perhaps an indication of his attention to the road while speaking with his office, he didn’t notice a uniformed PC Burn pull over and wave him past, before ordering him to the side of the road.
After initially denying he was on the phone – “Honestly, I wasn’t!” – he accepted it was a fair cop and was reported.
“There’s a hands-free kit in the van but for whatever reason it didn’t come through,” he offered. “I don’t normally drive but I have two drivers off and I have 25 deliveries to do in the next four or five hours.”
A third driver boasted of his huge fleet of vans after being pulled over in Hawes Side Lane, but was quickly reminded he already had nine points on his licence and was about to reported for both using his phone and speeding, and will now face a court hearing where he could lose his licence.
As his pregnant girlfriend sat alone in the large liveried van he explained: “I was calling a supplier for a part.”
And his reason for going 45mph – after admitting he thought he was being stopped for failing to give way at a roundabout – was being ‘late’, adding: “I’m not going to lie.”
Sent on his way, we hadn’t even set off again before a 21-year-old girl, on her lunch break, drove past in her Vauxhall Corsa, while texting on her multicoloured phone.
She was followed to her nearby home, where she sprinted inside to relieve herself before coming back out to explain herself to police.
“I was telling work to tell them I was going to be late. I know it’s no excuse,” she confessed, blaming her impromptu loo break on a medical problem.
“I have been referred to get different medicine because what I’m on now is not doing anything.
“I have an interview later too and this is not a great start.”
WHAT ARE THE FIGURES?
In Lancashire, 6,029 motorists were caught using their phones in 2011/12, statistics released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed.
Last year, that figure plummeted to 1,093, echoing a national fall in both prosecutions and the number of traffic officers patrolling the roads.
“It would be wonderful to think this drop is down to people getting the message about the dangers of mobile phone use, but sadly we don’t think this is the case,” Alice Bailey from road safety charity Brake said.
“A recent report called mobile use behind the wheel ‘an epidemic’, with our own studies showing more than half of drivers in some age groups admit they still use a phone while driving.
“As our police forces have faced major budget reductions, road traffic officers have too often been seen as a soft option for cuts. They are an essential part of the service and save lives.
“As the government brings in tougher new penalties for this crime, it must make sure it resources our police forces properly so this is a real deterrent.”
Home Office figures show a 23 per cent reduction in the number of Lancashire traffic officers between March 2013, when there were 145, and March this year, when there were 112.
WHAT DO THE POLICE SAY?
Rachel Baines, chair of the Lancashire Police Federation, said: “We have lost more than 900 police officers and it’s not just traffic officers who do traffic enforcement.
“There’s no doubt, with a loss of that many officers, we are looking at a reduction in all kinds of enforcement. We need to give the police more money to recruit more officers.”
Some 1,714 motorists were surveyed by the RAC for its recent report, and 31 per cent of them said they used a mobile while driving, up from eight per cent just two years ago.
The number of drivers who said they sent a message or posted on social media more than doubled from seven per cent to 19 per cent, while 14 per cent admitted to taking a picture of recording a video while driving.
Insp Andy Trotter, from the Road Policing Unit, said: “People who use mobile phones while driving are putting their lives and the lives of others at risk.
“The consequences of using a mobile while behind the wheel are huge and can lead to people being seriously injured or killed.
“It leaves families devastated and it must stop.
“No one would think of getting into a car with someone who has been drinking alcohol so why put yourself at risk when someone uses a mobile?
“We can all make a difference by urging people to think about their actions and our campaign is a reminder for all drivers.”
WHAT DAMAGE HAVE MOBILE PHONES DONE ALREADY?
Department for Transport figures show that a driver impaired or distracted by their phone was a contributory factor in 492 accidents in Britain in 2014, including 21 that were fatal and 84 classed as serious.”
That was all too clear to see as recently as October 31, when lorry driver Tomasz Kroker, 30, was jailed for 10 years for killing a mother and three children on the A34 in Berkshire.
Just an hour earlier, he had signed a declaration to his employer to say he wouldn’t use his phone behind the wheel, while judge Maura McGowan said he was so distracted he ‘might as well have had his eyes closed’.
Kate Goldsmith, whose daughter Aimee, 11, died in the horror crash – which was caught on dash cam footage later released as a warning to others – pleaded with motorists to learn from the case.
She said: “We urge you to make a personal commitment to stop using mobile phones while driving and make our roads safer for everyone.
“The 10-year sentence will not ease our pain or suffering, nor do we believe it will sent a strong enough message to those who lack the self-restraint to not use a mobile when driving.”
A number of fatal accidents, including last year’s death of cyclist Lee Martin, who was killed by a motorist with eight convictions for using his phone, prompted the government to last month announce tougher penalties.
WHAT IS THE PUNISHMENT?
Under new rules expected to come in place next year, drivers will now get six points on their licence and fined £200 – up from three points and £100.
Maximum fines in court are £1,000, and up to £2,500 for bus or goods vehicles drivers.
It means zero tolerance for new drivers, who are automatically banned for racking up six points within the first two years of holding their licence, and two-strikes-and-you’re-out for more experienced motorists.
A government spokesman said: “We have some of the safest roads in the world and it is totally unacceptable for motorists to endanger lives by using hand held mobile phones while driving.
“Offenders involved in road accidents while using a mobile phone already face serious offences such as causing death by dangerous driving, which can carry a substantial prison term.
“We have also proposed tougher penalties for mobile phone use to act as a deterrent and ensure it is not tolerated in society.”