Texting at the wheel

Audrey Ward and George Arbuthnott
8 June 2014
The Sunday Times

Hundreds of people are seriously injured or killed each year in accidents involving the use of mobile phones at the wheel. Are you still using yours?

Nazan Fennell’s face is gaunt, her body sparrow-like. Final demands are scattered on her kitchen table, and discarded rubbish — flattened cardboard packages, flyers and stuffed black bags — forms a large mound in the corner of the room. Her shell-shocked appearance is partly explained by the concoction of drugs she’s been taking since she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

She recalls the moment, 2½ years ago, when the police came to tell her that her youngest daughter, Hope, had been run over by a lorry and killed. Nazan had darted around the house frantically, gathering photos of Hope. “Look how beautiful she is, she’s only 13, she can’t be dead,” she told them. But they were adamant it was her. “It was like somebody put a bomb in the middle of my existence and just blew it up,” Nazan says.

The driver, Darren Foster, had been distracted as he drove his truck at speeds of up to 55mph through Kings Heath, Birmingham, on the afternoon of November 7, 2011. He had been arguing with his girlfriend in a flurry of text messages. In 20 minutes, they had exchanged 11 heated texts.

At the same time, Hope, a pupil at Queensbridge School, was saying goodbye to her friends and making her way home on her bicycle — a gift for her 13th birthday a few weeks earlier. Foster, who had been stationary at a pedestrian crossing, shifted into gear as the traffic lights turned green. The inquest into Hope’s death was told that CCTV footage showed Foster had pulled away on a green light before Hope cycled her bike in front of him.

He didn’t see the teenager because of a blind spot in the lorry, and his 18-ton vehicle drove over her. Her hair became ensnared in the axles and she was dragged into the undercarriage. Her mashed-up bike was spat out of the other side. Hope was dragged along as horrified schoolchildren and other bystanders screamed. After someone ran out in front of Foster, 39, and shouted at him to stop, he got out of the lorry and finally realised what had happened. A group of men tried to lift one side of the vehicle and free Hope, but it was too late. Nobody could save her. She died on the road.

It came to light that Foster, anxious that his text conversation would be used as evidence against him, had climbed back into his lorry and deleted the messages while Hope lay dying under his vehicle. Foster pleaded guilty to dangerous driving and perverting the course of justice. He was sentenced to six months in prison and was released after serving three of them.

Nazan says the revelations about Foster’s texting at the wheel only came about because of her own persistence — she asked question after question of the police. “Was he stopped, was he just rolling slowly, did he check his mirrors?” Only then, she says, did they begin to delve into Foster’s mobile-phone usage. “To them, accidents are normal — a lorry runs over a child or an elderly person, it’s just something that happens,” she says.

“They told me there’d been a terrible accident, a tragedy. He just couldn’t see her. There was nothing he could have done, he was very shaken — ‘He’s traumatised,’ they said. I completely refuse to use the word ‘accident’. When they came back with the information, it was as if they were doing me a great favour by carrying out this thorough investigation to find out if he was responsible or not.”

Nazan’s fury was further stoked when she heard the extent of Foster’s texting. “It was non-stop — he wasn’t looking at the road at all, at any time,” she says. She believes Foster’s use of a mobile phone prevented him from observing the complex procedure of mirror-checking that HGV drivers should follow when stopped at a crossing.

Even now, with the medication, Nazan can’t control the images and sounds that spring into her mind. “He just rolled over her, he drove about 100ft with her trapped in the machine. The word ‘trapped’ has caused me a lot of trauma,” she says. “I hear her screaming, sometimes, when I’m trying to go to sleep.”

Hope is one of hundreds of people who have been killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads in recent years in accidents involving the use of mobile phones at the wheel. Figures from the Department for Transport reveal that 378 accidents specifically involving mobile phone use were reported in 2012 — more than any year on record. Those accidents resulted in 548 casualties, including

17 deaths. But experts believe this figure gives a false impression of the true scale of the problem, as many cases involving phones are classed instead as an “in-vehicle distraction”. In-vehicle distractions led to 9,012 accidents and 196 deaths between 2010 and 2012.

We are in the grip of an addiction to technology.

In the rush to text, tweet, update our Facebook status or find our position on a map, many of us are increasingly reaching for our mobiles from behind the wheel, with scant regard for the law, or the risks. In one survey, by a private think tank, the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), the number of people spotted using mobiles while driving in Surrey alone increased from 1.2% in 2009 to 2.6% in 2012. And in an RAC poll of 2,000 people, almost half of drivers aged 18 to 24 admitted to texting at the wheel. The AA estimates that millions of us are committing the crime every day. Yet how many of us consider how our driving is being impaired by doing so?

The TRL has tested the effect that making calls, texting and using Facebook on a smartphone have on the driving skills of groups of 17- to 24-year-old motorists. The tests were compared with previous studies into the adverse effects of alcohol and cannabis, and the results were stark. Reaction times slowed by 13% when drivers were at the drink-drive limit; by 21% when they were high on cannabis; by 26.5% when speaking on a hands-free mobile; and by 37% when texting at the wheel. The biggest impairment occurred when drivers were using a handheld phone — their reaction times slowed by an astonishing 46%. The study also found that a driver is more than twice as likely to swerve across the road while texting than if he or she is high on cannabis.

Concerns over the rising death toll have led to a rare meeting of minds among road-safety campaigners, a drivers’ lobbying group and victims’ families, all of whom accuse the government of imposing inadequate penalties. Even the Alliance of British Drivers, a lobby group acting on behalf of our “beleaguered” motorists, is calling for a year-long ban. “People who text should frankly have their hands cut off at the wrist, it’s such a stupid thing to do,” said its treasurer, Hugh Bladon.

It became illegal to use a mobile at the wheel a decade ago, when drivers would receive a £30 fine. In 2007 the punishment was increased to three penalty points and a £60 fine, and last August it went up to £100, rising to a possible £1,000 on conviction in court. The Alliance of British Drivers is now calling for the penalty to be a year’s ban — the same punishment for drink-driving.

In the wake of our investigation, Robert Goodwill MP, the road-safety minister, has pledged to speak to the Ministry of Justice about toughening penalties. But his promises will provide scant consolation to those who have already lost loved ones on Britain’s roads.

The death of Helen Adams’s mother, Maureen Waites, triggered a devastating chain reaction. Waites, a mother of two, was heading to Newcastle airport to collect relatives when her Citroën was rammed from behind by a VW Polo. She was sent crashing into a barrier and died instantly.

The driver of the Polo, Rachel Begg, a bank clerk from Northumberland, had used her mobile phone nine times in the 15 minutes leading up to the crash. Begg, 19, was on her way home from a date with a boyfriend in Newcastle’s West End on the night of November 12, 2006. As she drove at 70mph on a dual carriageway she exchanged five text messages and had four phone conversations.

Adams recounts the agony of that day and beyond.

“I wanted to die. I had nothing to live for. My ability to function is not what it would have been if I’d had my mum here. She was my best friend.”

As Adams took on the role of carer for her distraught father, who had lost his wife of 50 years, her relationship with her husband broke down. “I had to go to work all day, then go to see to my dad and do all his laundry and groceries. I put my dad first. The anger I felt also contributed to the destruction of my marriage.”

Even now the hostility she feels towards Begg hasn’t dissipated. “She didn’t show any remorse at all throughout the proceedings,” says Adams, bitterly. “To this day I’m angry, resentful, and my life has been ruined as a result of losing my mum.”

At first, Begg denied using her mobile, but her phone records exposed the lie. Like Darren Foster, she had deleted her text messages. Begg was sentenced to four years for causing death by dangerous driving and was banned from driving for five years. She appealed and her sentence was reduced to three years.

Adams and her husband separated, and, with her father increasingly frail, she struggled to juggle a full-time career with looking after her four-year-old daughter, Emily.

Eight years on from the crash, Adams continues to contemplate the “what-ifs”. “What would life have been like if it hadn’t happened? Would I still be married? Would I still be in full-time employment? My little girl has been deprived of a grandma who would have adored her.”

She has one burning question to which she hasn’t had an answer. “What was so important for Begg that she couldn’t have pulled over at the time to take the calls? It cost me and my family something that was just priceless.”

The family of Jordan Wickington know only too well the content of the text message that was read seconds before their 19-year-old son was killed. Kiera Coultas’s phone beeped some time after 7am on February 7, 2007.

“I hope ur up, have no bread if you want a sandwich, just let me know,” the message read. Coultas, a hotel manager from Southampton, was on her way to collect her four-year-old daughter from her estranged husband and he had sent her the text. As her BMW approached a junction, she composed a reply.

Up ahead, Jordan, from Netley Abbey, Hampshire, was cycling to the construction site on which he worked as a scaffolder. Just as he jumped a red light, and before Coultas got the chance to press “send”, her BMW smashed into his yellow bike. Jordan hit her windscreen and was catapulted into the air.

When Daniel Hickman, Jordan’s half-brother, and his family were told about the text, and that Coultas had been driving at 45mph in a 30mph zone before Jordan was hit, they were inconsolable. “We had thought it was just one of those horrible accidents that happen. It was harrowing to hear what had really occurred,” says Hickman.

Jordan’s family were in court when Coultas was convicted of dangerous driving and sentenced to a four-year prison term, but Hickman feels that her punishment was light compared with what he and his family have endured. “We’re living our own sentence,” he says.

Britain’s most renowned motoring lawyer, Nick Freeman — known as “Mr Loophole” for his skill in harnessing legal intricacies to help clients escape conviction — says mobile phone use is the biggest threat to life on the roads. Although he is currently defending three people embroiled in death-by-dangerous-driving cases involving mobile phones, he passionately believes that those caught on their phones while driving should, at the very least, receive the same penalty as drink-drivers — a one-year ban.

“We compartmentalise it from drink and drugs, which we know is morally reprehensible and dangerous,” he says. “Impose that ban and you’ll get rid of it — 95% of people are not going to take the risk. Can you imagine being off the road for a year, just because you sent a quick text — ‘I love u’? Forget it. You’re getting a lot of decent non-criminal people involved in these sorts of incidents because the deterrent isn’t strong enough.”

Freeman justifies his work by arguing that everyone has the right to the best possible defence and, by exposing the loopholes, he is showing where the law needs to be tightened to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice.

In September last year, Freeman wrote to Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, requesting a meeting so he could outline his case for increasing the penalty. The Department for Transport declined the offer, stating that the government had conducted a consultation on the issue in 2012 and had “no plans” to make any changes. “They treated me with contempt,” Freeman says. “They masquerade under this helmet of road safety, but the big problem is, it’s not a vote-winner. It’s not in the government’s interest to seriously start removing people from the road, because it’s such a prevalent offence.”

Edmund King, president of the AA, is calling for a police crackdown followed by a potential move to a six-month ban, while the Magistrates’ Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents agree that the government should look at toughening the penalties. When The Sunday Times contacted McLoughlin to put forward these views, he said: “Using a mobile phone while driving is dangerous and it can ruin lives, so I’m absolutely determined that we take strong action to crack down on it.”

The road-safety minister, Robert Goodwill, called on the police to raise their game and review the priority they give the crime. “The best deterrent for this kind of dangerous behaviour is the certainty of being detected,” he said. Goodwill has also promised he will make a renewed attempt to hammer home the message to the public through the government’s Think! campaign.

The last official public awareness drive in the UK, Dying to Take the Call, was conducted as far back as 2007.

In other countries, similar anti text-drive campaigns have made waves. Last year, the celebrated German director Werner Herzog made a short film warning of the dangers of texting at the wheel. Commissioned by AT&T, America’s largest landline and mobile phone provider, the film, From One Second to the Next, makes for difficult viewing. It has been screened in 40,000 high schools across the United States and went viral online.

Herzog focused on four accidents, some of them fatal. The surviving victims, their families and those who were texting at the wheel open up to the director. One of the subjects is Chandler Gerber, who killed two children and a teenager seconds after he sent a text to his wife that read “I love you”. In the documentary, he recalls his panic at discovering what he’d done and his desperate wish to turn back time. “I’m just a young guy. I’ve got a wife, you know, a daughter on the way. This couldn’t happen to me. That can’t be real. I had to have just dreamt that… I wish so bad I could go back to that day and change my focus.”

Freeman, who has represented hundreds of clients in phone-drive cases, also believes the police need to shape up. Typically, he says, officers only investigate accidents that result in a serious injury or fatality, and in 50% of the minor cases that are pursued they fail to make roadside checks of the suspect’s phone. He says this frequent oversight, combined with the mobile phone legislation containing several loopholes, results in 80% of the cases that reach court ending in acquittal.

One such example involved the comedian Jimmy Carr, who faced being hit with a £60 fine and three penalty points after police saw him using his mobile behind the wheel of his Bentley in January 2009. He escaped a conviction because he said he was using the phone as a Dictaphone to record a joke. His lawyer, Freeman, argued that the law regarding mobile phones refers to them being used as two-way devices and, as Dictaphones are not interactive, Carr’s actions were no worse than checking the time.

Following his acquittal, the comedian said it would be “inappropriate” to repeat the joke, emphasising that the use of mobiles while driving was “serious”. “They didn’t check [the phone] at the roadside,” said Freeman. “If you’re an officer, you’d want to hear the joke, wouldn’t you? I would say it’s slapdash.”

King, the AA president, said that an estimated 20% reduction in dedicated traffic police over the past decade has resulted in fewer drivers being caught. Between May 2012 and August of last year, the number of British motorists with points on their licence for using a mobile phone or being otherwise distracted dropped by 14%, from 677,545 to 583,686.

“It hasn’t been a priority,” King said. “We need to send out a warning to drivers that the police forces will have a dedicated crackdown, the way they do with drink driving at Christmas. They need to get out there, set themselves up over bridges, spot the cars and pull over every single driver seen with a phone.”

For Nazan Fennell — who worked as a drugs counsellor before her daughter’s death — talking about her daughter is almost too painful. “Hope was impressive — the way she held herself, she was polite yet firm, full of personality and charisma,” she says. “She’d started learning the guitar and was just at that age of collecting lip gloss. She loved hanging around with her girlfriends, going into Boots and picking out make-up.”

She believes that drivers should have to switch off their mobile phones in cars, by law. “There should be stricter sentences to match the gravity of the crime and the gravity of the loss for the family. I’ll continue campaigning, it’s what keeps me alive. I’m a fighter and I’ll fight until I see some results. I’ve handled the situation by trying to fix something, so that my daughter did not die in vain.”