When you’re next driving, what you might think is another lorry passing by could be an undercover police officer in an unmarked heavy goods vehicle (HGV). As part of Operation Tramline, in the last 12 months, police across the country in three so-called ‘supercabs’, caught over 3,000 motorists committing driving offences.

Twenty-nine police forces have used the unmarked HGVs to patrol England’s motorways and major A-roads, using wide angled cameras to film evidence of unsafe driving and have already recorded over 3,500 offences in one year.

Causing offence

To improve safety on England’s high-speed roads, the police HGVs use de-restricted speed limiters so they can travel at speeds up to the national speed limit. The HGVs pull up alongside vehicles and marked police cars following behind pull over the motorists committing the driving offences.

In 2017, 27% (1,195) of people killed on the road weren’t wearing their seat belts. Despite this, not wearing a seat belt was the top offence recorded by officers of Operation Tramline. Figures from Highways England show a third of the vehicles filmed contained someone in the vehicle without their seat belt fastened.

New studies show one death on the roads every 12 days involves mobile phone use. Yet the second most prevalent offence caught by the supercabs involved motorists using hand-held devices while driving (1,062 offences). The next most common offences included not being in proper control of a vehicle (262 offences) and speeding (118 offences).

One of the most shocking bits of footage released by Highways England includes a lorry driver making an online payment while driving. Snapped on the M40 near Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, the footage shows the man holding his credit card with one hand and his mobile phone with the other.

Other footage shows a van driver on the A38 holding his phone in one hand, changing gear with the other, pulling into a service station a few seconds later. Officers recorded another motorist driving his pickup truck on the M60 near Eccles, Greater Manchester, texting with both hands.

Figures show there’s twice the chance of crashing from text-driving as from drink-driving. As drivers, we’re advised to turn off our phones before setting off in our vehicles, but a fifth of drivers (21%) can’t bear to switch off their phones. With young drivers, the figure increased to more than half (51%) unable to power down their electronic companions.

In 12 months, police filed 2,533 traffic offence reports—which often results in the guilty motorist attending a driver education course—and issued 462 penalty charge notices. Police made 73 further prosecutions for more serious offences. Despite these startling figures, the number of offences has fallen since 2018.

Highway robbery

Whenever news breaks of yet more driver monitoring, the public question why our government can use money and police resources for such endeavours when other crimes appear to go uninvestigated and it’s a valid question.

While it’s true that government cuts are destroying our police forces’ ability to police well and that ministers need to address the issue, we can’t ignore the fact that many road incidents and resulting deaths are avoidable, so perhaps those drivers who appear to have a surgical attachment to their mobiles will feel less tempted to break the law knowing police officers can peer into their car without them knowing.

Chief Constable Anthony Bangham, National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Roads Policing said:

“Operation Tramline is a successful collaboration between the police and Highways England.

“We remain committed to tackling those who take unnecessary risks with their own safety and the safety of others on our roads by allowing themselves to be distracted while driving. The consequences of these actions are often devastating.

“We will continue to work alongside Highways England on Operation Tramline and will prosecute drivers who ignore the risks.”

Support also came from Tom Cotton, Head of Licencing and Infrastructure Policy for the Road Haulage Association, who said:

“We need to improve road safety—there’s a small minority of drivers whose actions endanger other road users often with tragic consequences.”

Stay on the straight and narrow

Using a hand-held mobile phone whilst driving became illegal in December 2003 and in March 2017, the Department for Transport increased the punishment for motorists using their phones while driving, from three to six penalty points. Fines also went from £100 to £200.

If these punishments aren’t enough, they bring with them higher insurance costs. Also, if you get six points in the first two years of passing your driving test, you’ll lose your licence. If your driving’s bad, or if a crash occurs while you’re using the phone, police could also prosecute you for careless or dangerous driving.

Drivers using a mobile while driving must have hands-free access, such as a Bluetooth headset or a windscreen mount—as long as the device doesn’t block your view. With that said, police can prosecute you If you’re seen not to be in control of a vehicle while using a hands-free phone.

You can hold a mobile phone to make an emergency call to 999 or 112 only if stopping is unsafe or impractical.

It’s also illegal to hold a phone, or a satnav while riding a motorcycle.

Footballer David Beckham was last week banned from driving for six months after a member of the public photographed him using his phone while driving. Dashcams now feature in many cars, plenty of cyclists use helmet cams, and CCTV is everywhere, so remember; it’s not only the police watching you.

What’s your opinion on the undercover HGVs? Are you for or against Operation Tramline? Tell us your views in the comments.

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