Where’s the harm in educating distracted drivers?

Gemma Briggs, The Open University


This week is Road Safety Week, organised by the charity, Brake. The week is aimed at raising awareness and educating all road users about aspects of road safety.  Across the UK, people will be raising awareness in a range of activities from school children wearing brightly coloured clothing to explain how cyclists can best be seen on the roads, to workplace training promoting safer driving practice. This annual event takes great, effective steps in making our roads safer and it does so largely through educating the general public.

It may appear obvious that teaching the public about specific road safety issues could save lives. Indeed, alongside Brake’s work, successful campaigns run by Think! have been used to educate the public on key road safety messages. These campaigns attempt to deter drivers from ignoring laws relating to driver safety, such as speeding, drink driving, or using a phone while driving. Campaigns are used to support and explain the legislation they apply to. For example, the recent Think! campaign on distracted driving implored the public to ‘make the glove compartment the phone compartment’, with the advert ending with a reminder that those caught using their phone while driving face a £200 fine and 6 penalty points.

Think gov image

Image source: https://www.think.gov.uk/campaign/mobile-phones/#group-images-2

These kind of campaigns appear to be relatively successful in terms of changing public attitudes. In the latest British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS 35, 2017), 70% of drivers agreed that using a hand-held phone while driving was unacceptable, demonstrating a marked shift in attitudes compared with the previous 10 years. While this is a promising change, it is likely that recent increases to fines and penalty points of drivers caught using phones contributed to this shift. Nevertheless, there is of course a difference between what an individual says is unacceptable and what they actually choose to do while driving.

Statistics show that a high number of road accidents continue to be attributed to driver inattention (Atchley, Tran & Salehinejad, 2017). One research project (Dingus, Guo, Lee, Antin, Perez, Buchanan-King & Hankey, 2016) which recorded drivers’ behaviour over a three year period found that drivers were engaging in distracting activities for more than half of the time they were driving, which doubled their risk of crashing compared to when they were driving undistracted. The effect on driving varied as a result of the type of distracting behaviour engaged in, such that using a touchscreen, for example, increased the risk of a crash approximately five-fold, while using a hand-held mobile phone was associated with a four-fold increased crash risk.

It’s not just hand-held devices that are problematic though. Decades of research has demonstrated that hands-free phone use is as distracting as hand-held phone use, due to the demands it imposes on a driver’s attention. Phone-using drivers are more likely to miss hazards, even when they occur directly in front of them (Briggs, Hole & Land, 2016); will take significantly longer to react to any hazards they do see, leading to greatly increased stopping distances (Briggs, Hole & Turner, 2018); and are four times more likely to crash than undistracted drivers (Redelmeier & Tibshirani, 1997). While various theoretical explanations have been put forward to explain the cognitive distraction caused by phone use, the negative effects on driving performance have been widely replicated and verified. Why then do safety campaigns only focus on the dangers of hand-held phone use?

The answer is simple: hand-held phone use is illegal, and the Government therefore wish to deter people from this type of offending. Hands-free phone use is not directly legislated against and is, in many areas, promoted as the safe alternative to hand-held phones. Many car manufacturers promote the idea of ‘connected vehicles’ which allow drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road – a message which ignores research findings demonstrating that hands-free offers no safety benefit to drivers (Ishigami and Klein, 2009). Unless refuted by the advertising standards agency, no rules prevent car manufacturers making such ‘safety’ claims about the technology in their vehicles.

In 2017, when mobile phone legislation was updated, the Government chose to remove the option for first time offenders to attend an educational course aimed at changing behaviour. This was because they felt the option of a course diluted the severity of the offence and considered that increased fines and points would be more of a deterrent than education. This decision came after the tabloid media published articles claiming that the police favoured offering courses over increased fines, and that education courses allowed offenders to ‘dodge bans….rather than being hit with penalty points’. This move ignored the role that education can have in changing behaviour, and preventing further offending, as well as evidence highlighting the effectiveness of the courses that had been offered up to that point. Education courses are also commonly offered across the UK for drivers who have committed speeding offences, and research has shown them to be very effective in terms of altering driver behaviour in the long term, above and beyond penalty points and fines.

By removing the opportunity for educators to explain to offenders why their behaviour was unsafe, the Government has removed a crucial element in the drive to reduce re-offending. The RAC’s response supports this view, suggesting that ‘…concerted action by the Government, police forces, road safety groups and motoring organisations working together..’ is required to address the ‘…handheld phone epidemic that has gripped the UK’. Given the issues of enforcing the current laws, despite some promising technological advancements, it appears that education has a key role to play in changing behaviour. What seems to have been missed in this strategy is an understanding that a balance of approaches to tackle this problem is needed. Namely, campaigns can attempt to deter offending in the first place, the police can enforce the law when necessary, and education can be offered to both prevent re-offending (when offered after enforcement) and to deter others from offending (when proactively offered via campaigns).

Recently, a new Think! campaign – the very imaginative pink kittens film – went further than simply attempting to deter drivers from using their phones with the threat of fines and penalty points. Instead, the ad neatly demonstrated what a driver can miss when looking at their phone, providing a concrete example to the public of why laws are in place. While this campaign was clearly focused on hand-held phone use, it could have gone a lot further to act as a deterrent to all phone use while driving. Instead, while this campaign is a great deterrent for hand-held phone use, it implicitly suggests that the main danger of phone use is not having your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel (potentially advocating the use of hands-free systems). While these are of course dangers, research has shown that drivers using a hands-free phone can look directly at a hazard yet still fail to see it (Strayer, Drews and Johnston, 2003; Briggs et al. 2016). The key issue, which needs to be represented in safety campaigns, is that a phone-using driver does not have their mind on the road.

I’ve previously asked if the laws on mobile phone use while driving fully reflect scientific knowledge. Until there is a ban on all phone use while driving, the law will fail to adequately reflect research findings. However, that doesn’t negate the responsibility of the Government to make the public aware of this research, via safety campaigns which are informed by scientific findings. These need to be carefully crafted to ensure they reflect current law, to act as a deterrent, yet don’t by implication promote hands-free phone use as a safe activity.

A strategy of both educating offenders, as well as the wider public, could reduce offending and literally save lives. Our current project in collaboration with the Centre for Policing Research and Learning is aimed at addressing these issues, with a view to creating educational resources, informed by current research, which will be freely available to everyone.


Pride and Anti-Gender Harm

Dr Avi Boukli, The Open University

athens-2016 (2)Photo credit: Avi Boukli, Athens 2016

Is ‘Straight Pride’ a celebration of anti-gender politics? This blogpost poses an alternative critical approach in which the orienting concept is anti-gender harm. To do so it uses the example of Greek Straight Pride that took place on the same day as the LGBT Athens Pride in the summer of 2018 to highlight three brief points about the connection between Straight Pride and anti-gender politics.

On 9th June 2018, the LGBT Athens Pride took place. The parade was extremely successful this year. An estimated 60,000 people attended, which is in stark contrast to only 500 attendees in 2005 when the first Athens Pride took place. This year, the main slogan of Athens Pride involved the word ‘Present’ (Parousa). This slogan translates as “I am present” in this struggle, in this celebration, in this shared experience, and voice. But ‘present’ was used in the feminine form, as if the person stating ‘present’ was a woman. This was meant to celebrate femininity or femininities and subvert the ways in which hegemonic masculinity has colonised the way we speak and the ways in which using masculine pronouns has been considered neutral, dominant, and inclusive in Greek.

For Greece during a time of austerity, the 2018 Athens Pride took on diplomatic dimensions, as it was highlighted that diplomats from 32 countries attended in addition to the usual revellers. In many ways Pride was understood to be a positive political achievement. Symbolically, it signalled Greece’s capacity to protect minority rights and washed away past failures and human rights violations amidst the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. It also fitted in with a wider progressive narrative: we were told that the summer of 2018 was the ‘jumping out of the frying pan’ moment for Greece, since it was time for Greece to exit the memorandum (bailout) and follow the road to recovery. This is not to be dismissed, considering that since 2007 the Greek state has been through consecutive phases of brutal restructuring after plunging steeply into recession. However, while Athens Pride was celebrated as a success, a second pride was also taking off. This is no other than ‘Straight Pride’.

While one may dismiss Straight Pride as a retro-nostalgic idiosyncrasy, the endeavour of only a handful of people, and even a genuine celebration of straight orientations, I would like us to consider what ‘Straight Pride’ does. Straight Pride was driven by straight people who felt that LGBT Pride erases straight experiences as well as ‘real’ Greek experiences, and effectively used ‘straightness’ as the litmus test of Greek citizenship. This is evident in the main banner at the forefront of the Straight Pride Parade, which read as ‘The Parade of Greeks’ (Ellinon Parelasi).

Firstly, Straight Pride is not a politically neutral endeavour endemic to Greece alone. Gradually since the 1970s instances of both administrative and social discrimination have culminated in Straight Pride campaigns around the world and in recent years reenergised calls around the concept of Straight Pride, such as the call for the inaugural celebration of SPAM (Straight Pride American Month) by the vice mayor of Dixon, California, in July 2018. These are not politically neutral strategies, but rather are the result of the coalescence of conservative forces. In the Greek Straight Pride example, the architect of the operation is the far-right, ‘patriotic movement’, Anakatalipsi (repossession), whose leader was a 2014 candidate with ‘Golden Dawn’, a political party often described as fascist and neo-Nazi. Anakatalipsi’s Facebook page portrays queer identities as a direct attack against traditional national order and, hence, a legitimate target for elimination. This confluence of Straight Pride and far-right politics, while not surprising, should nevertheless concern us.

Secondly, Straight Pride is not weak. Just on Facebook alone at the time of writing this blogpost there were at least 50 Facebook groups dedicated to Straight Pride and its underlying principles. Most of these groups seem to be characterised by a frenzied fixation on the existence (real or imagined) of leftwing queer propaganda that represents an attack on traditional values, an assault on the heterosexual nuclear family – distinctly comprised of ‘born’ women and men, on religion, on property rights, and on laissez-faire markets. In these representations women and men need to ‘be born female or born male’, a statement that erases any processes involved in sexing and gendering bodies. This is connected to a wider contemporary resurgence of right and far-right politics, which has led to a renewed backlash against women’s rights and LGBT rights globally, as is evident in the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh who seems committed to rolling back Roe v. Wade on abortion rights, the Romanian referendum against same-sex marriage, the unravelling of a rather slow investigation of the violent death of Greek queer activist Zak Kostopoulos, and repeated attacks on trans people in national newspapers in the UK all taking place in the same week.

Thirdly, the reemergence of Straight Pride should be a call to action. It is important for us to utilise a critical lens in order to question what Straight Pride may mean, what it does, what symbolic spaces it occupies, what histories it colonises, and what struggles it aims to obliterate. At the same time, it is a call for a deeper exploration of the connections between sexuality, race, gender, nation, class, disability, religion, and ethnicity in relation to the tactics that make us governable. In the example of the Greek Straight Pride, the attachments to a nationalist agenda have implications for the boundaries that determine who is a Greek citizen and who is abjected. As such the available options for all people are framed strictly as either Greek Straight Pride or LGBT Athens Pride. Consequently, strategies such as homonormativity, homonationalism, and co-optation are presented as the only way of advancing LGBT acceptance and inclusion, while at the same time concealing the neocolonialist and neoliberal assumptions that underpin these strategies.

Therefore, while challenging Straight Pride and the politics inherent to it, we should not be complacent about critically interrogating strategies for recognition and inclusion. Further, even if Straight Pride does not explicitly target gender studies as a discipline, it ties into wider current attacks against the legitimacy of knowledge about gender and sexuality. If the crumbling walls of Pride shock some us into thinking more critically about the power of anti-gender politics, then Straight Pride may also inadvertently open up an interdisciplinary critical space of collective resistance and struggle against anti-gender harm.

This post was originally published on the LSE Engenderings blog at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/gender/2018/10/23/pride-and-anti-gender-harm/

Prisons and Matters of Life and Death

Dr Deborah H. Drake, The Open University


On 27 September, 2018 Safe Ground held their annual Symposium.  For those who don’t know, Safe Ground is a charity that designs and delivers therapeutic arts programmes in prisons and the community. Their annual symposiums are always amazing events – lively and interesting and aimed at having hard conversations about prisons and punishment.  This year, the programme included performances and panel discussions.  The format and tone of the day invited a wide range of perspectives, ideas and experiences that stimulated all manner of discussion, emotion, inspiration and reflection.

Safe Ground’s symposium title this year was: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and, as might be expected, many of the discussions focused on deaths in custody.  One of the key issues that kept emerging again and again from the panels, performers and presenters was the voluminous recommendations that have emerged out the inquiries that have followed deaths in custody over the last twenty-five or so years and the fact that many of the recommendations have failed to be implemented.  This is interesting…and scandalous.  It calls to mind questions on what prison policy makers, prison managers and senior-level prison officials must really value and what they don’t.

After every death in custody, there is a coroner’s inquest (for some compelling research that explores this, see: Deaths After Police Contact, by David Baker).  Often it is also the case that the charity Inquest will become involved to help bereaved families and friends to investigate the circumstances of their loved one’s death.  In addition, there have been individual cases of deaths in prison custody where a special investigation was launched.  For example, after the murder of Zahid Mubarek in 2000, his family and others pressurised the Home and Justice Secretaries to launch an inquiry and the House of Lords finally launched a Public Inquiry; the report on which, was published in 2006.

So why is it that so many recommendations after deaths in custody are ever fully implemented or that attempts at implementation are not universal across the whole of the prison estate? The most charitable of possible explanations of why this might be the case, could be that prisons are just hopeless at implementing change quickly and that they are working hard to address their operational shortcomings so that it is very difficult to get every establishment to comply with detailed changes of practice at the ground level.  However, is that really what is behind the failure to address the practices that seem to lead to deaths in custody?

Could it be the case that the reason inquiry recommendations that follow deaths in custody are rarely fully implemented across the prison estate is simply that the prison system has an underlying indifference and disregard for the lives of those it holds in custody?  Of course, the official statement of purpose of the Prison Service says that it has a duty to look after people in custody with humanity.  However, their track record demonstrates that prisons pose a serious threat to human life and that they do not take this duty as seriously as they take other aspects of their work, such as security and control.  It seems to me that, on the basis of the evidence, no matter how high the death count rises, no matter how many recommendations come out of death in custody inquiries, no serious change is likely to follow.  The reason for this is, quite simply, that the changes that would be required to reduce the death count are just not seen as important, necessary or vital enough to the order, control and security of prisons.  It is also probably true that a death or even numerous deaths in custody are not perceived as embarrassing enough to the Prison Service.  Whichever way you look at it, though, there is a repeated lack of due care and attention given to the recommendations that follow a death in custody inquiry by the Prison Service and, as a result, this must surely mean that these lives do not matter enough for the Prison Service to make significant changes to their working practices.   This is a bold claim.  But looking at the Prison Service’s relatively recent history, it becomes clear that the Prison Service just does not value the lives it has in its care as much as it values other aspects of prison practice.

On Friday 9 September 1994, six prisoners in Whitemoor’s Special Security Unit escaped.  All six prisoners were immediately recaptured.  On Tuesday 3 January 1995 three prisoners escaped from Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight.  They were all recaptured five days later, still on the Isle of Wight.  Two inquiries were immediately launched to examine the events that led up to the escapes.  The swiftness with which these inquiries were launched is, in itself, worth noting because it demonstrates an immediate willingness for responsibility-taking on the part of prisons officials.  No matter where the chips fell (and fall they did, but that’s another story), there was an immediate and widespread understanding throughout government and the Prison Service that something needed to be done and that practices needed to change (see this article for example).

Together the Woodcock and the Learmont inquiries produced 191 recommendations.  A substantial number of these recommendations related to security and control measures.  Almost all of these recommendations were implemented – not just in maximum-security prisons (from which the two escapes occurred), but across all parts of the prison estate.  The implemented recommendations resulted, within a few short years, in a huge range of new practices, policies and procedures that significantly altered the working and lived experiences of staff and prisoners and they remain much of the basis for security and control measures in practice in prisons to this very day.

Of course, security and control matter in prisons.  If you’re going to go to all the trouble of having a prison system, then prisons should, at the very least, be secure and controlled.  No argument there.  However, what is important to take from the Woodcock and Learmont inquiries is just how efficient, swift and complete the Prison Service can be in implementing recommendations when it really wants to.

So, why might the Prison Service have been so proficient in implementing these recommendations and yet so woefully inadequate at successfully implementing the many recommendations that follow deaths in custody or, even, just creating prison practices that result in less frequent losses of life?  The answer seems obvious.  The lives of prisoners just don’t matter as much as an embarrassing high-profile escape and, by association, as much as security and control measures.  That’s really what it comes down to.  Someone from the Prison Service might argue back at me and say: ‘yes, but these were escapes from maximum-security prisons and no one would want dangerous people out on the loose, posing a threat to the general public.  These escapes caused a real depth of fear in the communities where these prisons are located and the shock waves reverberated around the whole of the country.’  All of this is true.  However, what about the threat that prisons themselves pose to the general public – to those men and women who find themselves behind bars (i.e. they’re members of the general public too) and who subsequently wind up dead? Let’s try and look at this from the perspective of the threat to human life that escapes pose versus the threat to human life that prisons themselves pose.

Since the Woodcock and Learmont recommendations have been implemented – to the best of our knowledge – no one has been killed by an escaped prisoner.  In fact, I found no recorded evidence of an escaped prisoner in the UK having killed someone.  However, between 1994 (when the Whitemoor escape took place) to 2018, there have been 4,278 deaths in custody.  These can be broken down as follows: 1898 self-inflicted deaths; 2290 non-self-inflicted deaths; 82 other, non-natural causes; 8 restraints (source: https://www.inquest.org.uk/deaths-in-prison).

The danger and risk to human life that prisons pose, certainly seems to warrant a significant re-thinking of the way prisons are organised and managed.  The question, however, remains whether the Prison Service can begin to value the lives it has in its care at the very least as much as it values security and control.