Do new laws on phone use whilst driving fully reflect scientific knowledge?

Gemma Briggs, The Open University


On 1st March, tougher penalties for hand-held phone use whilst driving came into force. Those who are caught now face a £200 fine and 6 points on their licence. On announcing the change in legislation, Transport minister, Chris Grayling claimed that drivers must “take responsibility” for their actions, making phone use behind the wheel as socially taboo as drink and drug driving. This is a message few would disagree with, yet the legislation it relates to misses one crucial point: hands-free phone use is just as distracting as hand-held conversations.

The difficultly with this issue is that people are often unwilling to believe that hands-free phone use is any different from talking to a passenger. I’m often asked if this research means drivers must travel in total silence to avoid distraction, or whether I’ve ever tried to drive with screaming kids in the back of the car – surely that’s more distracting than a simple phone call? Of course, any type of secondary task whilst driving can be distracting, but phone use seems to be qualitatively different due to where both conversation partners are: someone on the phone cannot see what the driver can, and therefore consistently demands their attention. A passenger, on the other hand, can see when the driver is facing a challenging situation and can stop talking, thus reducing the amount of information the driver needs to process.

Our research takes this a step further by investigating which aspects of a phone conversation affect driving. As we all have a limited amount of mental resources available to us when completing any task, speaking on the phone introduces competition between the two tasks for these resources: the cognitive resources needed for driving may also be needed for a phone conversation. When talking on the phone, drivers may create mental images of what the other person is saying, where they are and what they’re doing. If this is the case, the conversation could have a ‘visual’ element to it, meaning some of the resources needed for accurate visual attention whilst driving may already be in use for a phone conversation.

Using a hazard detection test, we measured driver’s reaction times to hazards and their eye movements. Some drivers were distracted by a phone task which sparked their visual imagination, and others completed a phone task which did not require imagery. A final group of drivers completed the task without any distraction. Unsurprisingly, we found that dual tasking drivers reacted to fewer hazards, and took longer to react to those hazards they did notice, than undistracted drivers. But, those who were distracted by a conversation sparking mental imagery were the most distracted. Of more interest to us was the finding that those distracted by imagery took longer than undistracted drivers to react to hazards that occurred right in front of them, in the centre of the driving scene, yet did not take longer to react to hazards in the periphery – to the sides – of the scene. This seemed odd, until we established a worrying trend: very few dual tasking drivers reacted to the peripheral hazards at all, suggesting they hadn’t seen them.

Eye-tracking data revealed that dual tasking drivers looked at an area of the driving scene around four times smaller than undistracted drivers – in fact, they tended to focus on a small area at the centre of the scene, largely ignoring what was happening at either side. But, even though they were looking directly ahead, dual taskers took longer to react to hazards presented at that point, and on occasion still missed them altogether!

Taking hazard detection and eye-tracking data together we were able to identify that dual tasking drivers can look at a hazard yet fail to see it, due to a lack of available cognitive resources.

So, having two hands on the wheel and two eyes on the road isn’t enough if a driver is distracted by a phone call. Essentially, distracted drivers can be ‘cognitively blind’ to important aspects of the driving scene, making them more likely to be involved in accidents which could affect both their own and others’ safety. Phone use behind the wheel should definitely be as socially unacceptable as drink driving, but legislation needs to recognise and acknowledge decades of scientific research which emphatically demonstrates that hands-free phone conversations pose a significant danger.


This blog post originally appeared on the Open University Centre for Policing and Learning blog, at:


My Life Began At Forty

As co-Directors of HERC, we’re delighted and privileged to publish this contribution from ‘outside’ the OU. As you read this stunning piece, you will understand why it absolutely belongs here. Vickie Cooper and Steve Tombs


My Life Began At Forty

Michael Irwin

On the 29th August 2007, prison officers in England and Wales went on strike. I only knew this when it was shown on BBC News as there were no staff on the wing. At the time I was on remand on HMP Lewes and decided there and then that the world had gone mad and that the general public should know what goes on in the institution of prison. I started to write with pen and paper and record the events that were unfolding on a daily basis. This has now been turned into a book called My Life Began At Forty.

I was arrested at Gatwick Airport on the 19th June 2007 with 1.1 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the lining of bag I’d collected in the Caribbean. At the time I was addicted to cocaine, and the alcohol intake was just as bad. After a few months of detox I got my half sensible head back on and started to write. I ended up receiving a twelve year sentence for drug trafficking, six in prison and six on licence and decided to put my ‘Time’ to good use.

I served my sentence in six different prisons starting at HMP Lewes then moving on to HMP’s Brixton, Rye Hill and Highdown in England and then transferred back home to Northern Ireland and HMPs Maghaberry and finally Magilligan. There are many prison books out there and one of the unique features of my story is that I served in two different jurisdictions and was able to compare and contrast as I progressed through the system.

It was Erwin James who once said ‘no one will fully understand the strength it takes to get through a day in prison.’ My story not only captures these struggles it also captures the battle that goes on within one’s self. It explores the mind numbing boredom of lock ups, the chaos of the wings, isolation and vulnerability compared to the endless illogical bureaucracy of a dysfunctional  prison and criminal justice system.

My book also tells of the struggle to gain an Open University Degree in prison. As a man in his forties (soon to be fifty), the education system in prison was not really set up for me. The education system is more to do with the tick box culture of getting half of the population to level one or two in basic maths and English. As far as the system goes in England and Wales, a prisoner must be serving a sentence of four years or more to even be considered for an OU degree. So, in a way I was lucky that I got a lengthy sentence.

I completed my OU openings course in HMP Rye Hill in 2008 and, due to a plethora of administration errors by the prison service (not the OU), it was only when I arrived in Northern Ireland in 2009 that I was able to start my first module, K101 (An Introduction to Health and Social Care). My book describes how on the one hand I got the most amazing support from the education department at Magilligan to the loathing of prison staff who saw me as a threat as I had half a brain.

My Life Began at Forty Cover.jpg

This of course was true in a way as the more knowledge I attained via my OU coursework the worse I got. The more I understood the angrier I got. I started to challenge and question policies and decisions designed to protect me under the alleged duty of care provided by the prison system. I became a mentor and a prison Listener which allowed me to see that my problems were not that great when compared to others. Considering the level of suicides in our prison system today my book gives a unique insight into how this develops, how it festers in the psyche and how unequipped the criminal justice system is to deal with social inadequacies in our society.

Before I went to prison I was living in Cape Town and living a hedonistic life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. My addiction spiralled out of control and my money dried up and ultimately led to my trip to the Caribbean. What my book also delves into is the fact that I had lost everything. It explores how a person has to deal with these harsh facts of life in a closed environment and how one lives a parallel life. Without the support of family and friends would I have made it?

These questions are asked and answered throughout the book, the goal posts continually shift over time, place and circumstance and illuminates how family ties and peer support are crucial when serving a prison sentence. I continually speak of family throughout the book and this brings the reader back into reality and perhaps thinking, could I do this, could I survive it?

It’s been ten years since I first put pen to paper. I scribbled on court benches, police cells and hospital beds. I typed it up when I had time and out of sheer tenacity I now have a finished product. My story is one of hope and how as human beings, even at the lowest of low, when there is no way out we can find the strength to dig deep, put one foot in front of the other, survive the day and get to the end. Several of the world’s top criminologists have already read the unedited version and suggested ‘for anyone studying criminology this is a must read. Get it out there Michael.’

I now have a BA (Hons) in Criminology and Psychological Studies from the Open University and an MSc in Criminology at Queens University Belfast. Next stop PhD. My message is simple ‘never, ever give up.’

As Friedrich Nietzsche stated “Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage – it is called Self; it dwells in your body, it is your body.”


Vickie Cooper and Steve Tombs added:

My Life Began At Forty will be published at the end of April. To pre-order at a discounted rate, go to and type in Michael Irwin. Michael can be contacted at

Britain’s dark history of criminalising homeless people in public spaces

Victoria Cooper and Daniel McCulloch, The Open University


Image source: özge çağla aktaş/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND


Since the onset of austerity in 2010, the estimated number of people sleeping rough in England has more than doubled, from 1,768 in 2010, to 4,134 in 2016. As the number of homeless people increases, while support services and hostels are diminishing, rough sleepers are becoming ever more visible in British cities.

But rather than finding ways to accommodate the homeless, the UK government has sought to criminalise them. From archaic vagrancy laws, to the more recent Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), governments have been passing new laws and reviving old ones which result in the punishment of people with no fixed abode.

People without access to land or property are denied the freedom to roam, sit, eat, wash or sleep in public spaces. Or, where local authorities do lawfully permit street homeless people to access and use public spaces (for homeless camps, homeless shelters or day centres), these sites are routinely monitored by criminal justice agencies, bringing the homeless under direct surveillance and control.

Modern day vagrants

The criminalisation of the homeless can be traced back to 1824 and beyond, when vagrancy laws were implemented to control the spread of “urban poverty” at the height of the industrial revolution. During this time, land privatisation was being rolled out on a mass scale, and hundreds of thousands of people who lacked the means to purchase property were displaced from their homes and prohibited from accessing the land they once lived on.


Sleeping outlawed. Image source: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums/Flickr, CC BY


Vagrancy laws criminalised access to land in cases where there was no contractual relationship, which gave police the power to arrest people who were not legally bound to property or land. These individuals were characterised as “incorrigible rogues” and “mobile anomalies” by the law, and punished with flogging, incarceration and even transportation to penal colonies such as Australia.

Fast forward almost two centuries, and these antiquated laws – and imperious attitudes – are still very much with us. In the period from 2006 to 2014, the number of court cases for “vagrancy-related offences” in England increased by 70% – from 1,510 prosecutions to 2,365. The most noteworthy cases involved three men who were very nearly prosecuted for taking food waste from a supermarket refuse bin, and an operation in Sussex involving undercover police, which led to the arrest of 60 rough sleepers for accepting money from the public.

Hostile streets

This is the work of successive governments. Civil orders introduced under Tony Blair to target “street-crime” effectively led to a clampdown on begging, which sanctioned homeless communities en masse. When the coalition government came to power in 2010, these civil orders were amended to give local authorities even greater powers over what people do in public spaces.

In particular, Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), brought in under the 2014 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, allowed local authorities to enforce on-the-spot fines for certain activities. Predictably, local authorities are applying these new powers to target homeless people by sanctioning what they do in public spaces: street drinking, begging, camping in parks, defecating and urinating and in some cases even sleeping.

Not only do PSPOs criminalise the homeless, they also make these tactics appear as a local response to a perceived problem and avoids the exposure and opposition which national measures usually invoke. Yet PSPOs are not a local response: their use is widespread across England, and it’s increasing, with one in 10 local authorities now using PSPOs to criminalise homeless people.

To make matters worse, private owners of commercial land are boarding-up shop doorways, erecting spikes and using possession laws to forcibly remove the homeless from commercial spaces.

The fight for the right to exist

Yet there have been moments of resistance against these anti-homeless measures. Both campaigns by organisations such as Liberty, and individuals like the family who placed cushions over anti-homeless spikes in Manchester, are challenging the punitive measures adopted by local authorities. In some areas this has led to the successful withdrawal of PSPO proposals.

In austerity Britain, these movements are gathering momentum and stirring up indignation about the uneven distribution of wealth, property and land. Some resistance movements are even occupying empty properties to make space for homeless people and homeless communities themselves are documenting their own daily struggle as they fight for the right to exist in public spaces.

Homelessness itself is not yet a crime, but anti-homeless laws and strategies are restricting homeless people’s freedom, and turning everyday activities into punishable offences. Yet survival defines the daily lives of homeless people, and in the face of oppression they will find new ways to expose the violence and prejudice they encounter in the every day.


This article was originally published in The Conversation, at: