On mobile phone patrol with Lancashire's motorway police

It's 8am on Sunday and while the roads may be quiet Lancashire's dedicated traffic cops are ready for a busy morning.
Officers go through a briefing before going out on patrolOfficers go through a briefing before going out on patrol
Officers go through a briefing before going out on patrol

In the Samlesbury drizzle they go through a final briefing.Their target is drivers flouting the law by continuing to use their mobile phones while behind the wheel.Since March 1, tough new penalties have been in place in a bid to clamp down on the potentially deadly practice.But despite a barrage of publicity it seems for some drivers the idea of a £200 fine and six points on a licence is not enough of a deterrent.Since Wednesday, police have been pounding the motorways and A roads determined to drive the message home.This operation was just the latest in a series, designed to show police are serious about the tough new powers available to the courts.PCs Martin Shaw and Matt Burn are experienced traffic officers who know only too well the potential consequences of driving while distracted.PC Shaw was on patrol in Preston at the weekend when he stopped two HGV drivers on the phone while at the wheel.He said: “They might just be ringing ahead to let the depot know they are on the way, they might be taking a call about an extra delivery.“But it doesn’t matter.“They shouldn’t be on their phones and that is the end of it.”And it wasn’t just work PC Shaw found was getting in the way.He said: “One driver was in the middle of a WhatsApp conversation when we stopped him.“He insisted he wasn’t on the phone but when he opened it up there was a half typed message.”From the perspective of the casual observer it might seem a simple task to catch drivers on their phones.But having hit the road with PCs Shaw and Burn in an unmarked car, it soon becomes apparent how intense and frustrating a task it can be.There are classic signs - a weaving car, a fluctuating speed, a hand to the ear.But, as a short trip down the M55 proves, first impressions can be very different from reality.The police tactic is a simple one.Driving at speed they pull alongside a suspect vehicle, the observer in the passenger seat, armed with a body camera, poised to grab crucial evidence.But things aren’t always as they seem.One driver suspected of making a call is scratching behind an ear, another is eating.Another, on closer inspection, is smoking a cigarette.“He might get fined by the council for smoking in his works van,” says PC Burn, “But he isn’t for us.”On a quiet motorway there is no sign of any driver taking the risk of calling from the wheel.So the traffic cops change their tactic, hitting the A-roads in Blackpool.And it isn’t long before they spot another suspected caller.On Preston New Road a Mini passes, heading in the opposite direction, the driver clearly holding a bright pink device.The officers are quick to respond, using the power of the high performance patrol car to full advantage they are soon heading in the opposite direction and catching up with their target.Pulling alongside at traffic lights the officers realise they have been mistaken, what looked initially to be a glitzy mobile phone was actually an electronic cigarette.“It isn’t easy,” admits PC Shaw.“People sometimes when they see you put the phone down.“They might not even be making a call.”But the officers are not just out to target those driving on their phones.In driving rain a BMW races past on the approach to Charnock Richard services.The speedometer goes past 100 in the rush to catch up and the driver is soon being spoken to at the roadside. Contrite, honest and ashamed he is sent on his way with a likely three points and fine.And on the return trip to Blackpool, the crew are again forced to abandon their mobile phone brief.A smart looking Mercedes triggers an Automatic Number Plate Recognition alert.The driver, oblivious to the unmarked police car in his rear view mirror, hits more than 100 on the M6, powering through Broughton interchange and reaching 110 on the Blackpool-bound carriageway of the M55.When it’s safe PC Burn switches on the blue lights, bringing both cars to a halt on the hard shoulder.The young driver of the Mercedes is obviously shaken as he is brought to sit in the back of the patrol car, confessing straight away to maxing out at more than 100mph.With no proof of insurance a recovery truck is called to collect his car.And as he waits, talk turns to the mobile phone patrol.It seems the message is starting to get through –but not quickly enough.No drivers were stopped on Sunday but yesterday morning in Blackpool was a different matter entirely when six motorists were stopped in the space of a couple of hours.PC Shaw said: “We have to keep up that message, we have to remain clear it won’t be accepted.”

A nation of phone addicts

There is more temptation than ever for drivers to check their mobile at the wheel.The modern smartphone is packed with apps, many of which can prove a distraction to drivers.PC Shaw said: “Phones now aren’t just messages and calls.“People are addicted to their phones“They might be on WhatsApp or Snapchat or Facebook.“In a way that’s worse because their eyes are completely off the road.“If you’re looking down at a message at 70 miles per hour, how far are you going to travel in those few seconds?”

PC Burn carries out a traffic stopPC Burn carries out a traffic stop
PC Burn carries out a traffic stop

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Police know some drivers are more likely than others to give in to temptation and turn on their phone at the wheel.And despite their tech-savvy it seems younger drivers are more likely to be pulled over for a mobile phone offence.PC Shaw said: “We find it’s more people aged between 20 and 40.“You don’t see it so much with older drivers, but that’s maybe because they don’t use their phones so much.“Some people have Bluetooth in their cars but don’t know how to use it.“The most sensible thing is to not use your phone at all, put it somewhere you’re not going to be tempted.”