Keele Criminologist contributes to design of new warning system for drivers using a mobile phone

A new road safety device was launched at the TISPOL (European Traffic Police Network) road safety conference in Manchester last week. The system detects the use of a mobile phone in a passing vehicle, whether that use is for calling, texting or data purposes. The device was developed by the traffic safety systems company Westcotec who are based in Norfolk, with the assistance of Dr Helen Wells, a Criminologist from Keele with a specific interest in roads policing.

Westcotec’s Chris Spinks said “It was a chance meeting with Dr Wells at the National Roads Policing Conference in early 2017 that led to our mobile phone detector system being redesigned and improved to the point where it has now been released to the world. Thanks to her work around driver behaviour – particularly distraction – she was able to help us redesign the pictogram representation of the phone on the sign to ensure it was recognisable to all road users. She also gave us an insight into some of the psychology behind why drivers decide to do what they do. We are hopeful that we can continue to benefit from Dr Wells’ extensive experience and knowledge in her field as we develop other devices into the future”.


Dr Helen Wells with Chris Spinks of Westcotec


The system is built around a sensor capable of detecting vehicles where there are active 2G, 3G and 4G phone signals, plus an LED warning sign which is placed a short distance along the road from where the sensor is located. When the sensor detects that a mobile is being used (other than for Bluetooth communication), it activates a sign showing an illuminated smart phone icon within a bright red circle and diagonal red line. It is hoped that this will deter drivers from engaging in the activity, as holding a conversation via a handheld mobile device has been found to quadruple the likelihood of a driver being involved in an incident, as well as increasing the likelihood of a driver engaging in a range of other unsafe driving behaviours, and is arguably one of the biggest road safety challenges of the present time.

The use of handheld devices has been illegal since 2003, and the recent increase in the penalty for this offence from 3 to 6 points and £100 to £200 represents an important step in educating drivers, but with declining numbers of traffic officers on our roads, we cannot rely on enforcement alone to change driver behaviour. Attempts at educating drivers, such as the Westcotec sign, therefore have an important part to play in tackling this issue.

Added to that, the pace of technological development is fast outstripping both the ability of the 15 year old law to keep pace with the actual nature of the problem, and the ability of the road safety community to offer an effective response. The law refers to ‘driver’, ‘use’ of a ‘handheld’ ‘phone’ – four terms which are arguably a lot less clear now than when the law was drafted. Semi-autonomous cars now complicate the issue of ‘driving’, whilst tapping, speaking to, or even looking at a phone (rather than physically dialling or texting) may now qualify as ‘use’. Google watches and other wearable technologies now routinely have ‘phone-like’ functions, but it is not clear if wearing qualifies as being ‘handheld’. Finally, a ‘phone’ today is more reminiscent of a desk top computer than the calling and texting devices on the market in 2003, suggesting that the time has come to revisit the law relating to this type of activity.

Dr Wells also commented that “handsfree use has been shown to be equally as dangerous as handheld use, yet is legal, so any driver assuming that the law was a good guide to safe behaviour would be encouraged to use an equally unsafe alternative. The Westcotec sign has a simple message about using a mobile in any sense of the word, and therefore reinforces a wider safety message than that being communicated by the law.”
Whilst the device cannot differentiate between driver and passenger use of a mobile phone, Wescotec’s Chris Spinks “The vast majority of activations will relate to drivers, and we don’t see a problem when passengers activate the sign. In fact, it’s all part of the education message that using a phone when driving is not only illegal but very dangerous.”

The first system is due to go live in Norfolk later this month, with several other UK police forces expressing an interest.


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