Undercover police caught 10 motorists in one day putting lives at risk by texting on their phones while driving on the motorways of South Yorkshire.
The Star joined officers on patrol in an HGV as they cracked down on irresponsible drivers.
The 10 drivers included one tapping out a text in the fast lane of the M1.
Rogue drivers flouting the law and putting others at risk have come under the police spotlight on South Yorkshire’s motorways.
Highways England leases out a special HGV unit to different police forces across the country for the operation – and this week is the turn of South Yorkshire Police.
Operation Ophelia involves the HGV wagon, with driver PC Adrian Burgoyne and a spotter PC Bernie Smith, armed with a handheld camera.
The undercover HGV unit looks like any other on South Yorkshire’s motorways – but they’re on the lookout for motorists who flout the law.
They’re checking for drivers texting at the wheel, motorists and passengers not wearing a seat belt, plus foreign drivers who may not have paid the UK road levy and lorry drivers who flout tachograph rules.
Half a mile behind are three patrol cars. If PC Burgoyne or PC Smith spot any offence being committed, then they’re on the radio to give details back to patrol.
PC Pete Burke is one of these patrol drivers. His job is to wait patiently and speed up the motorway to pull over the offending driver.
“It’s not just about lorry drivers, because we are higher up on the road then we can see above and spot car drivers committing offences,” PC Burke said.
“It’s about having a level playing field, if you’re in the car, you can’t see up into the wagon but in the HGV you’re on their level.”
The patrol started on the M1 before turning onto the M18. From there the officers drove down the A1, turning round at Blyth and made their way along the M62 before heading back to Sheffield on the M1 south bound.
Officers caught 10 people on their mobile phones at the wheel in one day. Another vehicle was confiscated from a motorist for not paying his road tax.
One driver claimed he wasn’t on his phone after he was spotted on the M1 southbound tapping out a text.
But the driver was caught on video in the outside lane.
Spotter PC Smith said that drivers had three options when caught using their phone at the wheel.
“The first option is to attend an education course and pay a fine of around £80. The second is no education course but you get three points on your licence and pay a £100 fine.
“If people don’t play ball on option one or two then they can get summons to attend court.”
HGV driver PC Adrian Burgoyne has clocked up 24 years in the force – 16 years in the traffic unit – and investigates serious crashes including ones with fatalities.
PC Burgoyne said that offences seem to be dropping since they first started.
“When we first started doing this operation we found lots of people on their phones, it was crazy compared to now.
“We do get people who we pull over and they say to us ‘haven’t you got anything better to do?’.
“But this is a serious issue, people using their phones at the wheel have ended up killing someone and it’s guys like us who have to pick up the pieces when people are tragically killed.
“If they think It’s acceptable to use a mobile at the wheel then do they think it’s acceptable to put others on the road at risk?
“From my experience, road traffic collisions and deaths do not discriminate.
“You can be Mr law biding citizen, you can have never been in trouble with the police in your life and in one moment and you end up killing someone.
“Tapping away on your phone it can all change. If your not fully control of your vehicle then it can go horribly wrong.”
PC Bernie Smith has been with South Yorkshire Police for 30 years. He retires in March and is looking forward to putting his feet up.
Peering out of the window alongside lorry drivers with his handheld camera, it is his job to gather evidence of mobile phone use at the wheel.
“There’s a lot of discretion, we don’t drive up and down the motorways trying to purposely make drivers out to be serious criminals,” PC Smith said.
“It’s all about education, we tell people the consequences of what could happen and most of the time people hold their hands up and say ‘fair enough’.”
Last year’s South Yorkshire operation ran for five days in July and during the patrols officers dealt with 107 vehicles.
Lorry drivers were stopped for a variety of offences, including for not wearing their seat belts, using mobile phones whilst driving, using the hard shoulder and contravening red lights.
PC Burke said: “HGVs have a very big presence on our motorways and the majority of drivers carry out their duties in a very professional manner.
“This leaves a minority who have some very dangerous driving habits, which if things go wrong, can result in catastrophic incidents on our motorway network.
“Unfortunately, these drivers often get away with bad driving behaviour simply because the sheer size and height of their vehicles makes it difficult for police patrols to actually witness any dangerous activity within the lorry cabs.
“But thanks to the tractor unit last year we were able to stop drivers who were displaying bad habits and speak to them about safe driving practices in an effort to influence their attitudes and change their future driving behaviour for the better.”