Road Safety News

New system flashes mobile warning to drivers

Tuesday 10th February 2015

Following a successful trial, a new system that detects whether a mobile phone is being used in a vehicle is about to be rolled out across Norfolk.

Designed by the Norfolk-based safety sign specialist, Westcotec, the Mobile Phone Detection System (MPDS) is a portable system which identifies people using a mobile phone in a vehicle, whether they are on a call or receiving/sending a text message.

A roadside sensor monitors oncoming vehicles and sends information to the sign further along the road which flashes when mobile phone use has been detected in the vehicle.

Iain Temperton, Norfolk’s road safety manager, said: “We have been trialling the MPDS at a number of locations in Norfolk and it's proved to be a flexible and extremely useful piece of equipment that we're now ready to roll out across the county.

"The system can't detect whether it’s a passenger using a phone in a vehicle or whether a hands-free device is being used. But of course, those people don't need to be worried if they get a flash from the sign. 

“But for those drivers who are on their mobiles, the system is a powerful, effective and very public reminder that they have been detected, and that they are putting those around them at real risk by doing so."

The system is exclusive to Norfolk and has been welcomed by road safety groups in the county as an innovative way to get the message across to drivers that “using your mobile while driving is one of the most dangerous driving behaviours”.

Chief inspector Chris Spinks, head of Norfolk and Suffolk roads policing, said: “I welcome any innovations in technology which can be used alongside traditional methods to improve safety on our roads.”


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These signs are dangerous, I reported one of them and got it moved from the A140. They had strapped it to a lamppost and it was going off every time a car went past. Trouble was it was put just before a junction where cars turn right, blocking the road, there were regular tail backs. It was an accident waiting to happen, people who were not on the phone were distracted by this "light up" monstrosity that has no mention in the high way code. Whilst distracted by that, the traffic in front of them would be stopped.

Also the irony of the sign is, the only people who notice is drivers who pay attention, those on their phones / texting whatever wouldn't notice them!
Kevin Mayes, Norwich

Agree (1) | Disagree (0)

Completely pointless - it flashed me when I wasnt using my phone! It must detect bluetooth from the phone to the car! And like others have said what about eating and drinking etc?
Bryan @ Norwich

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I have not contributed to this item but have ben watching closely the comments made and the toing and frowing of not just ideas but of attitudes and the variety of disciplines brought to the debate. There is nothing wrong with coming from different camps as with road safety there are many facets and that requires a multitude of disciplines and understanding and perhaps compromise.

For my own part, none of it scientific. If there is a 1% (approx) identified increase in incidents by using a mobile phone then it can (I trust) be assumed that it is the tip of the iceberg. I am sure that most if not all of us could agree without argument that on a daily basis we see a number of persons using their phones whilst driving. So much so that if all of those users become involved in an incident/collision we are probably talking about 5 to 10% of the driving population.

My point is, how does this differ from a person seen eating, smoking, talking and looking at passengers, using the radio, altering the heater, the blower, the sat nav, the paperwork, the map, winding/operating windows, blowing ones nose, sneezing, adjusting mirror, changing gear, lowering/moving sun blind. putting on sunglasses, blowing nose, finding tissues etc.

Many of these activities are commonplace whilst driving, some/many requiring one wheel steering and I am sure all reading this can tick off those activities that they have done. I have done them all and still do about 70% of them. Are they not dangerous and could they possibly be cause or contributory to an accident? It doesn't take science to accept that. Just common sense.

All of these take the attention away from the primary safety of attention to driving but do we make them illegal as well? No, except after the event and when it's admitted or established by witnesses and considered to be the cause of an incident. Then it's driving without due care and attention.

That said as a vulnerable motorcyclist I actually detest, deplore, get annoyed, etc. when seeing someone anywhere near me on a handset phone when they can have hands free for less than a tenner. With all the electronics now available for car/van/hgv drivers you would think that hands free would be built in to all new cars.
Bob Craven Lancs... Space is Safe Campaigner

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Some years ago I was riding my motorcycle wearing all my high visibility gear and a driver pulled out right in front of me - I took evasive action and remained shiny side up. The driver apologised (sincerely I might add) indicating that he didn't see me because he was using his mobile phone - I kid you not!
Mark - Wiltshire

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One final comment on this and something which is so obvious I'm surrised it's not already been mentioned and which I think settles the argument once and for all. Whilst some vehicles can be driven one-handed, most can't and for the driver to be fully in control, both hands must be free to take care of vehicle control, whether it's indicating, steering or gear-changing so, with one hand occupied holding a 'phone, control must surely be compromised. I've seen drivers pull out of junctions to go left or right, one hand holding the phone the other trying to pull the steering wheel round - the hand slips, the car straightens momentarily into the kerb or oncoming traffic. Or what about slowing down to make a left turn? -indicate, change down and steer all with one hand - this is without the distraction element being factored in. Real accident situations - no data necessary.
Hugh Jones, Cheshire

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As a rider to my previous comment, the presence of a flashing sign on the road constitutes a potential triggering event, and there needs to be clear evidence and argument that this initiative prevents more collisions than it causes.
Eric Bridgstock, Independent Road Safety Researcher, St Albans

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I do not know as much as, say, Duncan about which parts of the brain deal with different functions (eg driving and having a conversation). But assuming the brain is one "processor" then my safety assessment would be that using a mobile is hazardous (as is driving while drunk, tired) in that it means the driver may not see or react to a developing situation as quickly or fully as they would have otherwise.

For an accident sequence to start it requires both a hazardous situation and a triggering event (such as a misjudgement by the driver, or unsignalled manoeuvre by another road user). I would expect misjudgement to be more likely with a driver on the phone. But we can often drive for miles without anything that would constitute a triggering event.

Dave Finney's assessment of the data linking phone use and [lack of] collisions should not be ignored and is worthy of further investigation. As the brain is clearly not required 100% to drive safely, perhaps it compensates in some way - I look to Duncan for a view on that.

Dave also mentions the possible benefit of calling a destination in terms of reducing driver stress and hence being in a safer state of mind.

I know you, Hugh, are in the "legal is safer, slower is safer" school of thought. You certainly would have been a geocentric, flat-earther. We learn by using all of the information available to us, not just our gut instinct. For a counter-intuitive example, please take a look at the Conclusions from Martin Toland's paper here ...

from a system safety conference I attended earlier this month. The whole of his paper will cause you to reconsider boarding a large ship.
Eric Bridgstock, Independent Road Safety Researcher, St Albans

Agree (5) | Disagree (8)

To get back to the news item Eric, it's about an interactive sign warning drivers about mobile phone use. Most contributors seem to think that it is an unsafe and risky practice, but Dave Finney seemed to be trying to claim it couldn't be because the data didn't say so, which is why I said we don't need to analyse data, just use our common sense and our eyes - (I'm glad you mentioned 'observation' incidentally).

You and Idris are anti-speed management campaigners first and 'engineers' second - not the other way round and neither you nor Idris are fooling many on this forum by using that title to give credence to what you say.

Getting back to the story, what would your 'safety engineering assessment' of driving whilst using a mobile phone be? If you haven't got round to doing one yet, using your common sense will suffice.
Hugh Jones, Cheshire

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Apart from being downright rude, your remarks about Idris and Dave remind me of the majority who used to the think the earth was flat or that it was the centre of the universe, resisting the evidence and argument proffered by Galileo and Columbus.

With regard to your reference to traffic engineers, they do not all subscribe to your opinions but to challenge the overwhelming views, which are propped up by huge vested commercial interests, would risk being viewed as a whistleblower (or heretic!), and that is usually a career limiting move.

Most of what we discuss on these pages are "system safety" issues and the way to assess them is through observation, challenge, data, analysis, evidence and argument, not through dogma, "common sense" (which can often miss the undesirable consequences) or ignorance. That is how rail safety, air safety, marine safety, etc is tackled - road safety should be no different.
Eric Bridgstock, Independent Road Safety Researcher, St Albans

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Nobody would really mind if words failed you Idris. Based on your last outburst - more often would suit.

You and Dave are becoming so obsessed with data as if nothing else can be trusted, that you seem to blind yourselves to the realities of everyday life on the road. Try the evidence of your own eyes occasionally. (Don't forget to take the blinkers off first - metaphorically speaking)

How come all the engineers involved day-to-day in highway, traffic and accident investigation matters with far more relevant experience and expertise, don't spot all these 'flaws' you and Dave (also engineers, as you keep reminding us) keep 'discovering'?
Hugh Jones, Cheshire

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Hugh - "is it really necessary to analyse facts?" Words (almost) fail me.

Over the last 14 years I have had more than enough of policies based not on facts but on the "common sense" of people who have none.

My camera analysis now includes two A4 pages simply listing past errors that at first glance seem to be based on "common sense" but when addressed properly are simply wrong, wrong, wrong.

It is no coincidence that the most vehement and increasingly the most credible critics not just of cameras but also of other policies such as 20mph areas are engineers, who through their training and because they need to be sure that the products they design and manufacture actually work, prefer to base their opinions and designs on evidence not wishful thinking.

That is why Dave, an engineer and the first to document the many serious flaws in camera claims is absolutely right to insist that policies on mobile phone use must be evidence based not "common sense" based like so much of the garbage we see and hear.

And no, I never use my phone when driving.
Idris Francis Fight Back With Facts Petersfield

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Is it really necessary to analyse data to establish whether some things are potentially risky or unsafe, when we can just use our common sense to realise that they are?
Hugh Jones, Cheshire

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You have made valuable contributions to the statistical analysis of safety cameras but these comments on mobile phone use are not worthy of you.
David Davies, London

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With any suspected behaviour, we first need to find correlation. So is drink driving dangerous? We need 2 figures: % fatal collisions involving drink drivers and %miles driven drunk. The 1st is around 9%, the 2nd we must estimate. If 5% drivers drink and 5% of their miles are driven drunk, then 0.25% miles are driven drunk and drink driving is therefore associated with 36 times higher death rate than sober driving.

Do the same for seat belts. Around 30% of occupant fatalities not wearing belts, around 10% occupants not wearing belts.

Now do the same for speeding. Speeding is involved in around 14% fatal collisions and surveys suggest around 10%-40% miles driven above the limit. And the same for mobiles: 1.1% fatal collisions and surveys show around 4% usage.

A correlation can be easily shown between drink and deaths and non seat-belt and deaths, but correlation is not found between speeding and deaths or mobiles and death. Why is demonstrating correlation necessary in every field of safety engineering yet, in road safety, correlation is not only not sought, but every and any argument will be deployed to deny it?
Dave Finney, Slough

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Nick is right, there is overwhelming evidence that mobile phone use degrades human performance at the driving task. What is lacking however is any evidence on how much degredation of predictive ability can be tolerated by a driver before they become critically unsafe. As Dave has pointed out a lot of research has been done in simulators, but the simulators can only simulate work as imagined and not work as done.

Out in the real world there must be literally millions of driver/phone events every day and yet only a tiny fraction of these actually result in any form of incident. It would be interesting to find out if drivers that phone or text have worked out some sort of adaptive strategy that helps minimise the effects of predictive degredation. It may also be worth finding out if the degraded driver gives off any subtle clues that other, less degraded drivers can pick up and use to adjust their own predictions.

By looking at how so many drivers can phone or text and not crash might give us some valuable insight to how they occasionally do crash.
Duncan MacKillop. No surprise - No accident.

Agree (9) | Disagree (6)

Dave (Finney)
My last post in this thread.

As I said earlier, I'm very surprised to hear you trying to argue that using a mobile phone while driving can somehow be safe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

What next, I wonder? Will you be suggesting that it's safer to drive after a couple of alcoholic drinks because the driver will drive more carefully because they know they are breaking the law and don't want to be apprehended by the police? Or perhaps that it's safer for drivers not to wear a seat belt because they will drive more carefully to avoid a collision?

Your contributions to the debate about cameras and RTM, as recognised by Professor Allsop, have been useful but I fear in this current instance you are in danger of losing credibility as a serious contributor to debates on road safety matters.
Nick Rawlings, editor, Road Safety News

Agree (23) | Disagree (4)


You say "Simulators are like models, they can be tweaked to give the desired answer."

Exactly who are you accusing of "tweaking to give the desired answer"? Can you be more specific and back this up with "evidence"?
Rod King, 20's Plenty for Us

Agree (11) | Disagree (4)

The money spent on this project came from the surplus generated from local speed awareness courses, and Norfolk CC have no qualms about spending the cash given to them by those who cannot adhere to a speed limit on this kind of thing. Fair play to them, as it is through such projects as this that we can promote the concept that phone use is bad practice, and selfish.

I am frankly astonished that Dave Finney takes up such a position on mobile phone use. If a member of his family were to be either maimed, or killed by an inattentive driver on the phone I do not expect that he would be quite as charitable in his attitude.
David, Suffolk

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It's fantastic, Nick, to hear your voice joining the growing number of us who want “scientific evidence” in road safety. Scientific evidence, though, is needed for evidence of overall effect, not for positive and negative effects because it is known that all interventions can have both. Yes, using mobiles while driving can reduce crash risk (I gave 2 examples), as well as increase it.

None of your 4 reports use real world data, they all use simulators. Simulators are like models, they can be tweaked to give the desired answer and can therefore be helpful to provide estimates or examine why something works or doesn't work. They cannot, though, be used as the basis of policy where people's lives are at stake, such actions would be reckless and illegal. Or at least they would be in any safety engineering discipline outside road safety.

Even after all this time it still shocks me, not that those in road safety haven't noticed that mobile use is not in itself dangerous, but that not a single person has even thought to find out.
Dave Finney, Slough

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Dave's logic would suggest that it should therefore become compulsory for us all to be on the 'phone whilst driving, as we'd all be much safer because the statistics say so and it helps keep our attention high on those long boring journeys.
Hugh Jones, Cheshire

Agree (12) | Disagree (5)

The following four reports by TRL, Aston University and RAC Foundation all find that mobile phones cause distraction to drivers.

Smartphone use while driving - a simulator study

Influence of personal mobile phone ringing and intention to answer on driver error.

Conversations in cars: the relative hazards of mobile phones

The effect of text messaging on driver behavior

To be honest I'm quite surprised that you appear to be suggesting that using a mobile phone while driving can in some instances improve safety. Do you have scientific evidence to back up this claim, or are you merely playing devil's advocate?
Nick Rawlings, editor, Road Safety News

Agree (23) | Disagree (5)

Yes you're right Honor, there is evidence that some people cannot drive and use a phone safely. There is also evidence that some cannot drive safely and use a radio, eat, talk to passengers, use a map/sat-nav and some simply cannot drive safely full-stop. We do not need to ban every single one of these things because there is a law to prevent all of them – driving without due care.

Many drivers can use a mobile safely and “self-selection” may be why good evidence of higher risk cannot be found. Mobiles also improve road safety, drivers in slow traffic might call to delay a meeting thereby allowing them to drive safely, calling their destination on long boring journeys can keep drivers attention high so their driving is safer.

Increasing phone usage – no corresponding increase in death rate
% deaths with mobile phone lower than % deaths without mobile phone
no real-world evidence of increased crash rates with mobile phone use

Can you imagine any other field of safety engineering having to deny the most accurate evidence in order to justify policy?
Dave Finney, Slough

Agree (8) | Disagree (21)

There are many accounts and video footage of erratic, unpredictable and hazardous driving e.g. lane to lane drifting on motorways, where later footage/witness accounts show that the driver was on a mobile phone - talking or texting. That a collision did not occur is not because that driver’s use of a mobile phone and consequent reduced attention and control of the vehicle wasn’t dangerous, rather it was thanks to the better anticipation and avoiding actions taken by other drivers which averted the collision that would otherwise have occurred. Low levels reported in statistics do not automatically evidence that an action is therefore safe.
Honor Byford, Chair, Road Safety GB

Agree (21) | Disagree (3)

Thank you David S for illustrating my points so well. I am well aware of STATS20, the quote you use is on my website along with mobile use as a contributory factor for every year here:

The authorities often use contributory factors in publicity campaigns when it suits their agenda but, if anyone points out what the contributory factors actually show, the authorities then claim the contributory factors are worthless. Not all factors will be evaluated but the Police will always ask: was speeding involved? Was alcohol involved? And was a mobile phone involved? The contributory factors remain the best “real world” data for why collisions occur.

Shall we be more scientific? Is there any evidence to counter this statement: “There is no real-world evidence proving that use of a mobile while driving results in more crashes compared to not using a mobile”.
Dave Finney, Slough

Agree (7) | Disagree (9)

It says 'following a succesful trial' and I wondered if drivers who had been detected on the 'phone and who had caused the sign to activate were then seen to hastily put it down?

Drivers know phone use is illegal but nevertheless still do it and I wondered whether a sign would actually prick their conscience enough for them to stop.
Hugh Jones, Cheshire

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Is the claim (first post in this thread) that only 1.01% of fatals involve mobile phone use based on contributory factors?

If so, it shows a failure to appreciate the background to these: "They reflect the attending officer's opinion at the time of reporting and are not necessarily the result of extensive investigation. Furthermore, it is recognised that subsequent enquiries could lead to the reporting officer changing his/her opinion.".

They are not based on any data "the Police aggressively seek". Evidence that mobile phone use is dangerous is based on much more evidence than a couple of different percentages picked from unrelated sources.
David S.

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In principal a good idea. With the rise in telemetrics and the use of data transfer from cars these will be flashing soon for every car that goes by. I assume shortly that the alternative to road policing (public voulnteers) will be standing by the signs passing on registration numbers of the cars to the police to send out warning letters.

Agree (13) | Disagree (2)

So, yet another flashing sign, one to distract me from the actual road. My phone is my sat-nav, so constantly exchanging data, and my girlfriend is almost never off the phone while I drive.

How long before a sign that detects open coke cans, or chocolate bar wrappers? How much does this sign cost? Could that money be put into repainting a junction?
Steve, Watford

Agree (15) | Disagree (6)

Why do those in road safety seem to have an absolute refusal to base policies on evidence, especially where this would not just be unthinkable in any other area of public safety, it would be illegal?

If mobile use while driving really was “one of the most dangerous driving behaviours”, the huge rise in mobile use over the last 20 years would have resulted in massive increases in the death rate on our roads. But … it has not happened. Furthermore, the Police aggressively seek mobile data following fatal collisions but only find an average of 1.01% involve the use of a mobile phone. When compared to the rate of phone use (surveys measure at around 4%) this means that the drivers most likely to be involved in a fatal collision are those who are not on the phone.

This data is counter-intuitive to almost everyone (including me and my phone is off when I drive) but shows road safety is more intricate than our authorities realise. If policies are continued without the necessary quality research, might it give the impression that road safety is not engineering, but “politics dressed up to look like engineering”?
Dave Finney, Slough

Agree (11) | Disagree (13)