Belfast Telegraph

Mobile madness: Northern Ireland lorry drivers who use phones behind the wheel

As PSNI launches a crackdown on lorry drivers using phones, we investigate the lawbreakers

EYES and ears fixed on their mobile phones, the drivers of these 10-tonne juggernauts cruise along a Belfast road.

The pictures taken by a Sunday Life photographer close to where a grandfather was killed show the men all engrossed in their handsets as they make their way onto Dock Street in the north of the city — the scene of William Walker’s death in September last year.

The 64-year-old was accidentally run over by a lorry as he left the nearby Docker’s Club early on a Friday evening.

But his unfortunatesad death nine months ago, and the dangers of using a mobile while behind the wheel, have clearly not registered with the truckers we snapped brazenly breaking the law.

This newspaper watched as they pulled out of the boat terminal at Dufferin Road, near the Whitla Street fire station, with phones pressed to their ears or in their palms.

They then moved on to Garmoyle Street, still captivated by their handsets, before stopping at the lights on Dock Street — the spot where William Walker was crossing when he lost his life in a tragic accident nine months ago.

The PSNI last night launched an investigation into our troubling images, with Inspector Roise Leech saying: “Due to the nature of smartphones and their varied functionality, in this instance it would be impossible on the basis of a photograph alone to prove beyond reasonable doubt that an interactive communication function had occurred.

“Having said that, police will be writing warning letters to each of the haulage companies and drivers identified.”

So far this year, 20 people have died following smashes on Northern Ireland roads. The figure for 2016 was 68, with four children, three cyclists and 14 pedestrians among the dead.

A significant proportion of these fatalities were due to careless driving and inattention, caused in some cases by drivers using mobile phones.

Last year, Edward Devlin was jailed for 13 months for killing Ian Bailie, who he knocked down while browsing the internet on his phone.

The 21-year-old, from Hilltown, near Newry, was looking at cars for sale when his van mounted a grass verge and hit a telegraph pole on the Old Ballynahinch Road at Lisburn.

Mr Bailie (66) was standing on the other side of a gateway when he was struck either by the vehicle or pole, which caused horrific injuries from which he died a month later.

Sentencing Devlin, Judge Lynch warned of the dangers of using phones while driving, saying: “The explanation for this catastrophic mistake is simple. The phone had been in continuous use prior to the accident itself.

“You failed to see what was obviously in front of you... a man looking forward to retirement is now dead and he can never be replaced.”

In England, Polish lorry driver Tomasz Kroker was jailed for 10 years in October for killing a mother and three children after he was distracted by his phone.

Kroker was sent to prison for killing Tracy Houghton (45), her sons, Ethan (13) and Josh (11), and 11-year-old step-daughter Aimee Goldsmith in Newbury, Berkshire.

Chilling footage from inside his lorry cab showed 30-year-old Kroker scrolling through music on his mobile for seven seconds before he ploughed into stationary traffic at 50mph.

Mrs Houghton’s Vauxhall Corsa was shunted under the trailer of another lorry and crushed to a third of its size in the crash last August on the A34.

The law around the use of a mobile in any vehicle is clear — you cannot use a device when driving, even when stuck in traffic.

However, in an emergency situation when it is unsafe or impractical to stop, 999 calls can be made.

PSNI figures show that last year 5,943 people were stopped holding a mobile phone while driving.

Inspector Leech (left) added: “Drivers who use a mobile phone are four times more likely to crash, injuring or killing themselves and other people. If that driver is in charge of a lorry, weighing upwards of 10 tonnes, the chance of major loss of life if a driver is distracted increases dramatically.”

Fines for using a phone while driving increased from £100 to £200 in March, with penalty points also going up from three to six.

Welcoming the move, the National Accident Helpline’s Simon Trott said: “We know that this is one of the main causes of accidents on the road, and we welcome any change in the law that improves road safety.

“We hope the increase in penalties will help to deter drivers from being tempted to use their phones at the wheel.”

Last Wednesday the PSNI backed a new initiative by truck hire firm Hireco aimed at increasing awareness around the dangers of using a mobile while  driving. The company, which has more than 5,000 vehicles on UK roads, is to fit its entire fleet with hands-free kits to improve safety.

Hireco’s Ricky Graham said the move was in response to growing concerns over the illegal use of mobiles whilst driving.  

He added: “How often do you see lorry drivers using mobile phones as they drive at speed on the motorway? Our customers often point out their concerns, and we’ve been trying to come up with a way of alleviating the problem in any way we can.

“As a result, we have decided, at our own expense, to offer a hands-free kit to any of our customers who rent a truck or trailer over the course of the next 12 months. The fitted kits will be paired to the driver’s personal mobiles, and at least then they can take calls without taking their eyes off the road.”

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