Taking the right course: the possibilities and challenges of offering alternatives to prosecution for drivers detected using mobile phones while driving

Savigar-Shaw, Leanne; Wells, Helen and Briggs, Gemma (2022). Taking the right course: the possibilities and challenges of offering alternatives to prosecution for drivers detected using mobile phones while driving. Accident Analysis & Prevention(173), article no. 106710.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aap.2022.106710


There is a considerable body of literature that outlines the dangers of mobile phone use by drivers. However, there is very little research that explores the role and effectiveness of attempts to tackle this specific road user problem. Generally, normative motives are more likely to generate compliance with traffic law, and are more likely to be developed through approaches which focus on engagement and education. There would seem to be little potential for them to be developed through the use of penalty points and fines, which rely on more instrumental logic. Nonetheless, the decision was made in the UK in recent years to cease offering ‘courses’ (inputs to detected phone-using drivers offered as an alternative to prosecution) for mobile phone offences. This decision was made despite a lack of evidence one way or another about their effectiveness in tackling both handheld mobile phone use and handsfree mobile phone distraction – a form of distraction not explicitly covered in law. This research project aimed to explore driver education as an alternative to prosecution for mobile phone use while driving offences, focusing on perceptions and experiences of one particular educational intervention. This paper draws on 46 semi-structured interviews with those involved in delivering a specific intervention aimed at reducing handheld mobile phone use by drivers that was previously offered as an alternative to prosecution in the UK; the police officers identifying offenders for referral to such courses, those delivering the intervention, drivers attending the course as an alternative to prosecution and members of the public attending the course as general education. Four key themes, with underpinning subthemes, emerged; 1) Police officer discretion and entry into the criminal justice system 2) Police-public interactions, 3) Course experiences, and 4) Post-course considerations.

Firstly, police officer discretion is an important determinant of criminal justice system outcome, based on subjective rather than legal decisions about whether or not to report drivers for an offence.

Secondly, police officers negotiate encounters with road users using the avoidance of prosecution as a way of diffusing difficult conversations, sometimes by offering a course as a preferable alternative to prosecution, sometimes by encouraging handsfree phone use.

Thirdly, course attendance provides an opportunity to develop both normative alignment through increased understanding of police work, and to appreciate a range of instrumental consequences associated with mobile phone use. Both self-reportedly impacted upon mobile phone use while driving. Finally, post-course considerations emphasised a focus on who should be offered courses as an alternative to prosecution, focusing upon desires for both punitive and rehabilitative responses to mobile phone using drivers.

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