In which I have to agree with the ABD

…that remedial lectures are not an appropriate alternative to prosecution for people who use mobile phones while driving. Stopped clocks, and all that. Rather less frequently than twice a day in the ABD’s case.

Lincolnshire, amongst others, are extending their remedial courses — the sort that are already widely offered as an alternative to prosecution for those caught driving too fast — to those caught using phones while driving. Greville Burgess, principal road safety coordinator for the Lincolnshire Road Safety Partnership, claims that such courses “could save lives”, but, this being a local newspaper, no evidence or source for the claim is cited. Burgess says:

“The evidence from other diversionary courses is very positive in that nationally less than 1 per cent re-offend within three years of completing the course. This strongly suggests that education rather than simple penalty points and a fine is more effective.”

But the latter does not follow from the former: Burgess does not give us the re-offending rates for those who take the penalty points. Is there really a statistically significant difference in rates at which people are caught — mark that, caught* — re-offending depending on which sentence they picked? But then, the utility of such numbers would be compromised anyway by the very fact that the offender picks the sentence: there is no randomisation in the groups we are comparing. The person who thinks that £60 and the points is the more lenient sentence might be very different to the sort of person who would rather spend £80 on the day-long remedial course. (Of course, both sentences look to me like absurdly light ways to deal with those who endanger the lives of others, but…)

This is the sort of intervention that is perfectly suited to a proper randomised controlled trial. While we’re at it, we could see whether combining the interventions — prosecution and remedial education — works better than either one on its own. If education really does work so well, why not make it a compulsory addition rather than an optional alternative to prosecution?

I don’t know what evidence Burgess thinks he has for his claim that these courses save lives, or are better than the alternatives, and I can’t find any likely candidates in the literature. But there is plenty of research on the topic, and a review of all the best evidence we have on driver education programmes — 32 properly randomised and controlled trials of advanced and remedial driver education programmes.  They found that the courses entirely failed to prevent re-offending.

And so far as I know, nobody has ever thought to investigate whether there might be side-effects to these policies. We have a prime-minister who sees moral hazard everywhere he looks, and is worried about whether we have sufficient deterrents to crime. We should not limit our assessment of driver education programmes merely to the rate of re-offending amongst participants. We must look at the wider and less immediately obvious effects of classifying mobile phone use while driving as the type of activity that merely merits spending a day getting a good talking to from a retired policeman. Perhaps there are no such side-effects. We don’t know until we look.

But I almost forgot. The prime-minister is also keen on some offenders being allowed their second chance.

I fear that this is now the second time I have found myself siding with the Association of British Drivers. But if I were to write about them every time they said something totally batshit crazy, I’d never get a moment’s rest.

* my own entirely unscientific observation is that, despite being universally recognised as extremely moronic behaviour, mobile phone use while driving is very common. The capture rate must be pretty embarrassing. I fear the 1% re-offending rate says far more about the efficacy of the policing than the efficacy of any remedies.

A momentary attraction

Vaughan of the ever fascinating Mind Hacks discusses a recent study that looks at the effects of having an attractive passenger in the car on driver errors.  The researchers put forty people in driving simulators and made them drive through hazards while talking to passengers.  The basic finding was that the drivers failed to spot pedestrians and hit more motorbikes when talking to those passengers that they considered to be more attractive.  Driving with somebody you fancy is dangerous.

More interesting, though, is the detail.  The drivers who were distracted by their hot companions were more anxious and drove slower; their eyes continued to look in all the right directions.  The errors that they made were “looked but failed to see” errors: they were looking at the road and mirrors as usual, but not processing the information.  I imagine they thought that they were driving well, at appropriate speed, and making all of the checks that they needed to make…

Link to PubMed entry for study; link to Vaughan’s post.