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:

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:

Decriminalising drug use: when will the government acknowledge the harm our current laws cause?

Abigail Rowe

International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research

The Open University

December 2014

At the end of October, amid a flurry of controversy, the Home Office published the findings of an international comparison of the policies adopted by thirteen countries to tackle drug misuse and dependency. The study, which has been widely hailed by commentators as demonstrating that a ‘criminal justice approach’ to drugs is ineffective, was a concession to the Liberal Democrats, who had promised a liberalisation of drugs legislation in their 2010 manifesto and have since been arguing for a Royal Commission on drugs. Several days later, however, Liberal Democrat Minister Norman Baker resigned from his post in the Home Office, alleging that Home Secretary Theresa May had blocked publication of the report for several months, and describing working with her as ‘a constant battle’. The controversy within the Home Office over the report has brought the contrasting attitudes of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives around drugs policy into wider public consciousness, but has also highlighted the uneasy relationship between politics and criminal justice policy.

Although the published study contains no overarching conclusions, the evidence it presents demonstrates that there is no consistent relationship between the severity of a country’s drugs laws and the prevalence of drug use, addiction and associated harms among its population. A comparison between the approaches of Portugal and the Czech Republic exemplifies this. While both have effectively decriminalised the possession of a small amount of any drug for personal use, Portugal has seen improved health outcomes and falls in levels of drug use and drug-related deaths, while in the Czech Republic following decriminalisation, rates of marijuana use remain among the highest in Europe, health outcomes have worsened and drug-related deaths have increased. Sweden, on the other hand, which takes a stringent criminal justice approach to psychoactive substances, has relatively low levels of drug use, although not significantly lower than in some other countries taking different approaches. The Home Office study, then, quite clearly demonstrates that the severity of the sanctions in place for drug possession and use doesn’t determine whether or not a country will have a drug problem. That is, whatever the strengths or weaknesses a country’s drug strategy may have in managing the risks and potential harms of drug use, whether or not the trade in and/or use of psychoactive substances are criminalised is clearly not key to managing the problem.

Despite this, the Foreword to the report – authored, as is usual in government documents, by the politicians who commissioned it rather than researchers who conducted the study – introduces the findings with the assertion that what they primarily show is that different policies work in different contexts and wholesale policy transfer is clearly impossible. More than this, it claims that, read in the context of long-term declining drug use in the UK, the study demonstrates that the Government’s ‘balanced and evidence-based drugs policy’ is sound. This indicates a clear resistance to the opening of a debate around reform of the drugs laws.

Drug use trends - Home Office 2014

Source: Home Office (2014). Despite the government’s claim that a long-term decline in drug use indicates that government policy is working, most of the decline is accounted for by a fall in cannabis use, while the use of Class A drugs has been stable for two decades.

Theresa May has offered little comment on either the report or Baker’s noisy resignation. As the story began to gain momentum in the press, however, the Prime Minister intervened with a clear dismissal of the possibility of any relaxation in the drugs laws. He offered little engagement with the evidence presented in the report, but fell back on clichés of ‘common sense’ and the moral claims of parenthood: the criminalisation of drug use would remain in place because ‘as a father of three children’ he did not want to ‘send a message that somehow taking these drugs is okay and safe’, and that decriminalisation would ‘add to the danger’ posed by psychoactive substances – this last point despite the clear evidence of the report that the ‘message’ sent by the law is not the significant factor in determining the prevalence of drug use. Furthermore, not only would the policy of criminalisation not be relaxed, it would be extended to cover substances currently known as ‘legal highs’.

Cameron’s argument rests on the value of the drugs laws as symbolic, and – supposedly – deterrent. This focus on the immediate harms and risks associated with the consumption of drugs neglects the myriad of other, state-sponsored, harms generated by criminalisation, which range from the violence and instability caused by the illegal multi-billion dollar international drugs trade, to the harms to individuals and communities that come with the imposition of criminal justice sanctions on users. This narrow conception of drug-related harm and the resistance to an evidence-led approach to drugs policy by UK politicians has history over successive governments of different political stripes. In 2000, for example, the Blair government greeted the recommendations of the Runciman Commission to downgrade the classification of ecstasy and cannabis, and to treat possession of the latter as a minor civil offence , with panic, conceding only the downgrading of Cannabis from Class B to Class C when it became evident that The Daily Mail had received the report with approval rather than the expected outrage. Eight years later, however, and against scientific advice, Gordon Brown’s administration reversed that decision and sacked senior drugs advisor David Nutt for criticising the move as being without foundation in evidence. For Guardian commentator Simon Jenkins, who was a member of the Runciman Commission, government resistance to an evidence-led drugs approach to drug use represents a failure of drugs politics rather than drugs policy.

A continuation of current policy means a reaffirmation of the government’s commitment to criminal justice sanctions for those convicted of dealing in, or possessing, illegal drugs. This group accounts for a substantial proportion of the prison population. 2013 Ministry of Justice figures show that 14% of men in prison, and 15% of women were serving sentences for drug offences. This, however, masks the much larger number of convicted prisoners whose convictions were indirectly drugs-related (i.e. not for possession or supply of drugs themselves): in the same year, 66% of female and 38% of male prisoners reported that the offence for which they had been sentenced was committed to fund their own or someone else’s drug use. Not only does it draw very large numbers into our prisons, our current criminal justice paradigm serves those with problems of substance abuse and their communities very poorly. For example, illegal drugs are disproportionately used by minority, marginal and disadvantaged groups – young people, those from ethnically mixed backgrounds, gay and bisexual men and women, and people living in areas of relative deprivation. Meanwhile, while members of Black and Minority Ethnic groups use drugs at a lower rate than the population as a whole, for example, they are more often stopped and searched under drugs laws, and receive more severe sanctions for drugs possession offences when convicted.

Not only is the criminal justice approach to the use of psychoactive substances fundamentally problematic, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to maintain the status quo in drugs policy comes at a time of mounting strain in the criminal justice system. At close to 86,000, the prison population in England and Wales is not far from its historic high, and in a context of budget cuts, reduced staffing levels and prison closures, the consequence of this is overcrowding and reduced levels of purposeful activity for prisoners. The prison population is being held in facilities not designed to accommodate their numbers, and concentrated into larger and larger prisons, which are known to be less safe. These conditions cannot ensure basic safety, much less deliver the government’s promised ‘rehabilitation revolution’. The number of assaults recorded against both staff and prisoners has increased and, most worrying of all, suicides among prisoners have risen sharply over the last year: clear indicators of a prison system in crisis. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, has issued a clear warning: either the prison population must fall or prisons must be better funded. The Home Office report demonstrates clearly that prohibition is not a meaningful deterrent to drug use. Neither is prison an effective place to deal with problems of addiction: drug use (including first use of heroin) among prisoners is high while the current trend towards larger institutions exacerbates these risks, as prisoners in large establishments are more likely to know how to get hold of drugs, but less likely to know where to get help with problems of addiction.

Over the the last month, the Coalition row over the government response to the Home Office report, and the crisis of rising suicides, overcrowding and violence in our prison system have sat cheek-by-jowl in the headlines. We have a bloated prison system that – while public and welfare services are being cut elsewhere – we can ill afford, and into which we channel thousands of men and women each year, disproportionately from marginal and disadvantaged sections of society, where their social disadvantage is compounded and physical and psychological well-being profoundly threatened. While there is no denying the harms generated by substance addiction, all a criminal justice approach can offer us is what Willem De Haan has described as ‘spiralling cycles of harm’. We know better than this, and it is in all our interests to start doing better.