Laws surrounding mobile phone use while driving are being tightened under new British government plans to make any use of a portable telephone illegal. From 2022, the mobile phone law will be extended to include taking photos or videos, scrolling through playlists or playing games while driving or standing still, for example at a traffic light. However, using a mobile phone ‘hands-free’ will still be allowed – although research shows it is equally distracting.
At present, UK drivers who use a portable mobile phone can only be prosecuted if it can be shown that they have used it for a “interactive communicative functionsuch as calling or texting. The change in law closes this loophole and makes it easier for distracted drivers to be prosecuted, fined £200 and get six points on their driver’s license.
According to the British government, 81% of people who responded to the consultation supported the move. This is in line with the findings of the roadside assistance group RAC, whose annual report On driving, it appears regularly that the use of mobile phones by other motorists is a major concern for motorists.
But data also show that many drivers who claim to support the law continue to use their phones behind the wheel. A survey found that more than a quarter of motorists admit to using handheld cell phones, at least occasionally.
So why do drivers who support the law and recognize the dangers of distracted driving still use their phones? The answer lies partly in drivers’ attitudes and prejudices.
What the evidence tells us
Research shows consistently that most drivers consider themselves above average in driving. Statistically, of course, this is highly unlikely. But this “self-improvement bias” gives drivers a reason to believe their using cell phones is safe while others are condemned for doing the same.
Phone Usage Drivers justify their behavior by claiming that they are able To adjust their mobile phone use depends on the driving situation, such as limiting use on busy roads. They believe they can multitask and limit the risk in a way that other drivers cannot.
Drivers with a preference for self-improvement also often demonstrate “optimism about crash risk” – assessing oneself as having a lower risk of an accident compared to other drivers.
In a way, any ride a supposedly above average driver successfully takes using a cell phone seems to confirm to them that their behavior is appropriate, and the law is aimed at other drivers. This helps to explain why strong support for a tightened law in this area can go hand in hand with a high percentage of violations.
Educational campaigns involving, for example, fatal or serious collisions caused by a distracted driver can encourage these prejudices. Such campaigns seem to confirm drivers’ belief that they can handle it when these other ‘inferior’ drivers couldn’t.
For these overconfident drivers, the threat of enforcement might be the only deterrent. But in recent years, the number of dedicated road police officers in the UK have refused, and the public has apparently noticed. In a survey, 54% of respondents believed they were unlikely to be caught or punished for using a portable cell phone while driving.
This set of circumstances makes it very difficult to convince drivers not to use their mobile phones while driving. If a driver thinks he can safely multitask while avoiding prosecution, what’s stopping him?
We need to change our attitude
The tightening of the law may prompt some drivers to rethink their phone use, but it seems unlikely to solve the problem of cell phone use among drivers and eliminate the harm it causes.
In a broader sense, legislative changes will never keep pace with new technologies. In-vehicle distraction, such as interactive dashboard screens and digital assistants such as Alexa, are evolving faster than the law can keep up.
We need to question the narratives drivers regularly use to justify their behavior and address driver prejudice by providing education, based on psychological evidence, that is harder for drivers to resist or deny. Interactive Education, which would allow drivers to experience their own distractions, rather than hear about the failures of others, would be a good start.
If we don’t address driver attitudes, we won’t meaningfully address driver distractions, regardless of what the law says.