This week police are carrying out a crackdown on drivers using mobile phones behind the wheel. TOM COTTERILL joined officers as they patrolled the roads
Lashing rain thumped down as I stood under a bridge in Fareham watching out for motorists texting and driving.
Hundreds of vehicles passed by without a single person using their mobile behind the wheel.
‘Five years ago, it would have been like shooting fish in a barrel,’ says road traffic cop Inspector Andy Tester.
‘But things are changing now. People seem to be getting the message.’
Yesterday marked the midway stage of a new week-long crackdown by Hampshire police.
Officers from across the force, alongside their colleagues elsewhere in the country, are targeting motorists who are using their mobile phones while driving.
Insp Tester is the only visible officer on the beat, tucked behind a grubby-looking pillar at the edge of Quay Street roundabout.
The rest of his team are hidden away – two officers on motorbikes and a further series of unmarked units ready to intercept offenders on Insp Tester’s radio command.
They had been on their latest static operation since 8am, with the wind and rain from the approaching Storm Georgina hampering radio communications and visibility.
‘We’ve caught five people so far today,’ Insp Tester tells me, without taking his eyes off the passing traffic.
It’s a figure that, much to his delight, was lower than expected – something that he felt was a positive indication.
‘People are starting to change their behaviours – it helps that more and more cars now have bluetooth (wireless technology) in them so people can answer calls hands-free,’ adds the 20-year police veteran.
Yet despite his early optimism, the day would soon be marred by one of the worst mobile phone-use offences on the road that Insp Tester had seen in recent years.
We had moved on from our spot in Fareham and were now in the one of the force’s unmarked BMWs.
A brief patrol through Fareham and Portchester saw Insp Tester pulling over two vehicles, after his in-car automatic number plate recognition alerted him the vehicles had no insurance.
On both occasions, the occupants of each car was innocent, with a minor system glitch causing the alert.
Later while driving along the M27 near Swanwick, eagle-eyed Insp Tester spots a driver in lane one with a phone held against his ear.
Our car slows to let the other vehicle catch up – and the driver still has his black phone pressed to the right side of his head.
Within seconds, Insp Tester had switched on his blue lights and pulled the motorist over onto the hard shoulder.
Wearing his green high-visibility jacket, the former Metropolitan Police officer strode over to the vehicle, his notebook in hand.
After a brief exchange, he urges the driver to come out of the car and beckons me and our photographer over.
A pungent smell of cannabis wafts through the air as cars and lorries blast through the spray of rainwater logged on the motorway next to us.
The suspect, a 43-year-old from Hayling Island, was friendly enough while being questioned, albeit visibly disappointed to have been caught. Inside the vehicle was a cannabis grinder, unopened bottle of beer and scatterings of cigarette papers.
When questioned, the man admitted he had been smoking cannabis while driving. He later failed a roadside drugs test and was arrested.
Later, Insp Tester admits: ‘This is as bad as it gets,’ saying the driver had put other motorists at risk with his actions.
People caught using their phones while driving now face six points on their licence and a £200 fine following a shake-up in the law last year. This week’s crackdown by forces in England and Wales comes after figures showed a rise in the number of road deaths linked to mobile phone use by drivers.
The deaths of 32 people in 2016 were attributed to the dangerous practice, up 60 per cent on the year before.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg, with hundreds more accidents being caused year in, year out by distracted drivers.
Despite the rise, police are facing more pressures than ever before, with budgets being hacked and numbers of frontline officers being cut.
This week, The News revealed how 160 roles at Hampshire police were due to be axed – including 20 road policing jobs – amid cutbacks of almost £7m in 2018/19.
However, over the next four years, the force needs to save £24.75m. It’s a situation that has worried Police Federation chiefs in Hampshire, as well as experienced officers like Insp Tester. ‘There’s only so much we can do,’ says the father-of-two. ‘There’s a risk of us becoming more reactive than proactive.’
This, he adds, would hinder the number of operations road forces could run in a bid to both raise awareness of key safety points while still enforcing the law.
‘It’s a fine balancing act,’ he tells me, one that he is certain will be a key challenge in the future.
•You’re four times more likely to crash if you use a mobile phone while driving
• You are twice as likely to be involved in a fatal collision texting as you are drink driving
• Reaction times for drivers using a phone are around 50% slower than normal driving
• Even careful drivers can be distracted by a call or text – and a split-second lapse in concentration could result in a crash
• It’s illegal to ride a motorcycle or drive using hand-held phones or similar devices.
• The rules are the same if you’re stopped at traffic lights or queuing in traffic.
• It’s also illegal to use a hand-held phone or similar device when supervising a learner driver or rider.