Drivers caught streaming TV shows at the wheel in Sheffield

Drivers illegally using their mobiles are sadly an all too common sight, but motorists in Sheffield have even been caught streaming TV shows at the wheel.

By Robert Cumber
Tuesday, 06 August, 2019, 10:18

Inspector Jason Booth says it’s remarkably not as rare as you’d imagine to find drivers catching up on their favourite programmes when they should be giving the road their full attention.

As one of two inspectors on South Yorkshire Police’s operational support unit, whose main job to keep the region’s roads safe, he’s got his work cut out dealing with reckless motorists like these – as well as those bent on breaking the law.

Inspector Jason Booth, of South Yorkshire Police's operational support unit

Jason’s team posts many staggering stories on its popular Facebook account about the stupidity encountered by his officers, which often leaves him despairing.

“It's sadly not unusual for drivers to be talking or texting on their mobiles, and we've even had several instances of motorists streaming television programmes,” he says.

"When you're driving at 70mph, you're not going to stop quickly if your full attention's not on the road.

"We know people have busy lives but if you're using a mobile at the wheel you could kill yourself or somebody else."

Inspector Jason Booth says his team is focused on making South Yorkshire's roads safer, not generating fines

Jason is in charge of roads policing and dogs within the operational support unit, to which he moved just under a year ago, having spent most of his career to date as a neighbourhood police officer, based in the south east of Sheffield.

He’s keen to bust the common misconception that his team is just there to dish out fines to drivers, when it’s actually responsible for ridding the streets of some of the worst criminals.

While much of their work revolves around dealing with reckless motorists, including speeding drivers, they also stop thieves and drug-dealers in their tracks.

Inspector Jason Booth moved to South Yorkshire Police's operational support unit last year after more than two decades in neighbourhood policing

Searching suspicious vehicles or those flagged as being uninsured, they frequently uncover evidence of serious crime, like drugs or weapons – often after high-speed chases.

"Many people just associate roads policing with fines and enforcement,” says Jason.

"That's a part of what we do, because obviously we want to make the roads safer, but there's much more to our job.

"We do a lot of work, especially overnight, to stop criminals who are stealing cars, dealing drugs or breaking into houses.”

A car abandoned in Handsworth after a police chase through Sheffield

All the squad’s cars are fitted with automatic number plate recognition technology, scanning the roads for cars which have been flagged by police for various reasons.

Officers are also well-versed at looking out for tell-tale signs a vehicle may be involved in crime, from the condition of the car to the way in which it is being driven.

The team’s Facebook page has built up a loyal fan base thanks to its daily updates, combining often shocking tales and photos with a humorous tone referring to crooks going to 'Casa del Custody' and seized vehicles heading for the 'great scrapyard in the sky'.

"It's a means of education and a way of letting people know what we're doing. We find the jokey approach helps us to engage with people, and the response has been excellent," says Jason.

The team's Facebook account is also a great way to educate drivers about dangers they might not be aware of but which pose a considerable risk, from threadbare tyres and overladen trucks to 'middle lane hoggers' on the motorway.

"Middle lane hoggers are a real source of frustration for other drivers,” says Jason.

Police Dog Bear takes a well-earned break after tracking down another criminal in South Yorkshire

"We try to post about things like that on social media to reassure people that we are listening and to remind other drivers to keep left on the motorway.

"What we do isn't about fine generation, and it's not number driven. It's about making the road network safer. We don't want people killed or seriously injured on our roads.

"Unfortunately we have a number of people who feel they can drive with no insurance or licence, or under the influence of drink or drugs, and put other road users at risk.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

A few days before I met Jason, members of his team had chased a stolen Ford Fiesta seen on the Manor estate. Officers were forced to stop the car by deliberately making contact after it was driven the wrong way down Prince of Wales Road into oncoming traffic.

All officers who join the team get advanced driver training and pursuit coaching, and everything is recorded.

The training is vital not just for public safety but that of officers themselves. Only the other day, Jason tells me, a driver tried to ram one of his officers off the road.

"You can never fully remove the risk but we do everything we can to minimise it. If a pursuit gets particularly dangerous we can and do abort when needed," he says.

"We can end up having pursuits on an almost daily basis, which reflects the people being targeted who are willing to break the law and aren't going to voluntarily stop for the police."

Jason is also in charge of the police dog division, which currently numbers around 20 but which the force is looking to expand.

The pooches come into their own during police chases when criminals abandon their cars and flee on foot, often flinging open the door before the vehicle has come to a stop and setting off, as Jason puts it 'like a greyhound out of the traps'.

Not only can they quickly chase down even the most fleet-footed of crooks, they are able to sniff out any drugs hastily discarded during the pursuit.

Officers now have the added advantage of drones which are increasingly being deployed to help track offenders.

The squad is often first at the scene of serious collisions, looking after victims and making sure the scene is safe while any vehicles and debris are cleared, which can be a traumatic experience.

Officers also act as family liaison officers for grieving relatives who have lost a loved one on the road.

"We're there to provide the support they need at an incredibly difficult time. You naturally get attached because you're almost living it with the family," says Jason.

Despite their vital role at crash scenes, officers are often subjected to foul-mouthed abuse from motorists taking out their frustration at being delayed.

"It's really disappointing when people do shout abuse because we don't just close lanes for fun," says Jason.

"If it were a relative of yours you would want police to carry out a thorough investigation."

It's not always immediately clear why a road has been closed. In recent weeks, police have had to shut lanes due to reports of children on the grass verge beside the M1 and a dog running wild on the A1 near the M18 junction.

Jason, who grew up in Dronfield, joined South Yorkshire Police in 1994 after a short stint as a special constable with the Derbyshire Constabulary.

The 48-year-old father-of-one, who describes himself as an outdoors person, says he made the switch from neighbourhood policing because he was looking for a fresh challenge.

He is determined to use his experience of local policing to show communities his team is listening and responding to their concerns.

That means attending public meetings, liaising with councillors and community groups, and lending his team's support where possible for operations targeting issues ranging from speeding to drug dealing.

Jason’s unit recently ran a survey asking members of the public to name their biggest concerns, which it transpired were people using their mobile phones at the wheel or driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

The team often posts shocking photos of crashes, many ending with the vehicle overturned or on its side, to highlight the potential consequences of those actions.

"We want to show people this is what can happen. Sometimes people drink or take drugs and don't realise it's still in their system when they take the car out, but that's no excuse,” says Jason.

"We've stopped people who are four or five times over the limit and are putting innocent lives at risk."

Speeding, too, is a big bugbear.

Jason's officers have teamed up with neighbourhood police to carry out checks at hot spots, and the day I meet him they have been out clocking cars on Sheffield Road in Woodhouse.

They’re also promoting Community Speedwatch, where ordinary people volunteer to monitor speeds; and taking part in a national crackdown on speeding, which figures show plays a part in just under a quarter of fatal collisions.

With so much on their plates, it would make their lives that bit easier if drivers could wait till they’re home before bingeing on the latest episodes of Stranger Things.