The Chief Executive of car technology company Bluesona, Mel Morrison, has welcomed the introduction of tougher action on mobile phone use while driving as an important step in improving safety.
Downpatrick-based Bluesona works with insurance companies to provide a system, LoopMatics, that tackles distraction driving caused by mobile phone calls.
“The changes to The Road Traffic Offenders (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2020 are vital,” said Mr Morrison. “They are a clear signal that mobile phone use while driving is the worst type of distraction for a motorist.”
Under the changes approved the fine for using a handheld mobile phone was increased from £60 to £200 and the number of penalty points increased to six. A second offence will lead to the loss of their licence.
Bluesona’s LoopMatics system tracks the driver’s on road behaviour as well as recording their mobile phone use. It is designed to encourage safer driving by providing feedback to the user on their journey and flagging the times when a mobile is used.
“The Statutory Rules introduced by Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, are an important step forward,” said Mr Morrison. “Hopefully they will indicate to all drivers that it is not legal, and not acceptable to use a mobile when behind the wheel.
“And I particularly welcome the fact that all parties backed Ms Mallon’s changes, and spoke so powerfully in the Assembly chamber.”
From 2017 Bluesona has focused on making driving safer, in partnership with insurance companies. Unlike many of the ‘black box’ style devices they developed LoopMatics uses a simple plug-in to track journeys, acceleration, heavy braking and if these coincide with using a mobile.
During the discussion on the changes to the Road Traffic Offenders Order Ms Mallon said that she had consulted with the Assembly’s Infrastructure Committee, Justice Minister, Naomi Long, and PSNI Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, and that all backed the increased penalties.
“The illegal use of a mobile phone while driving is a selfish disregard for the law,” the SDLP MLA said bringing forward her proposals in the chamber. “It poses a serious threat to not just the driver who made the selfish choice but to many other innocent road users. The consequences can be devastating.”
Mr Morrison said that he was conscious when developing LoopMatics it was clear there needed to be more than just a nudge to the way mobile phone use is thought about.
“There needs to be a change of attitude, and a change in behaviour,” he said. “It needs to be based on it becoming the norm to stop using phones when behind the wheel.
“And, I congratulate the Assembly parties and members on passing the changes with no opposition. Too often we forget the role of MLAs in introducing safety measures.”
Under the changes newly qualified drivers who commit the offence will also be banned on their first offence as a result of the increase in penalty points.
Chair of the Assembly Infrastructure Committee, Michelle McIlveen, said: “As we are all aware, the technical advancements in phones have made the device an indispensable addition to our lives.
“However, it is the urge to check messages and respond to the sound of a notification that makes them so dangerous whilst driving.”
The DUP member also said that the committee would support the planned review of mobile phone offences to be carried out in line with the English and Welsh Department for Transport review.
Sinn Féin’s Cathal Boylan reflected on the impact of fatal road accidents.
“It is often said that a single death on a road is one too many,” he said. “We must improve road safety in any way that we can.
“We all know how families and, indeed, communities are affected by a death. It is incumbent on us to try our best to introduce as many measures as possible.”
Ulster Unionist, Roy Beggs, said: “The use of mobile phones has become more and more common. Many people are almost addicted to them. They forget the risks that are involved in being distracted when driving, even by considering the use of such a phone.”
Andrew Muir of the Alliance Party echoed the seriousness of the issue.
“Fifty-six people died on our roads in Northern Ireland last year,” he said. “Nine in 10 road deaths and serious injuries are caused by human error. That is why we must come down hard on those being reckless with the safety of others.”
Mr Morrison said that safety was the ultimate aim of Bluesona and LoopMatics, through its ability to show drivers, in an easy to use interface the habits, especially in terms of mobile phone use that needs to change.
Bluesona is based in Downpatrick and has a centre in Letterkenny. They offer their LoopMatics software to customers through various insurance companies.