It was rare to hear of anybody doing it back then. A good eight years ago, when I first had the idea for Glass Houses, texting at the wheel was not a big issue. We were only just starting to believe that holding the phone to our ear was a bad idea. The law against that came about in December 2003 but, according to The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), it wasn't until an increase in the fine from £30 to £100, as well as a fixed 3 point penalty, was made law in 2007 that the punishment was viewed as any sort of deterrent.
I had already stopped at that point but only because I'd had a chastening experience at a roundabout on my way to work. There I was, posh dress on, mother of two young children, in her battered-but-reliable 'R reg' VW Polo, looking every bit the driver the old insurance schemes were allowed to back as a safe bet. I'm ashamed to think that I was probably sorting out some tea date for my little ones, booking a hair appointment, talking to my mum… anyway, the bit I do remember is that the phone was in my hand when a man cloaked in black leather on an over-revving motorbike passed me in the outside lane, his finger tapping the side of his head as if to say: Think about it. Oh the glorious juxtaposition of the stereotype.
It worked though. I realised that I hadn't known the motorbike rider was there until he started gesticulating and that was the last time I held the phone to my ear. Having gone on to consider and research the awful consequences of similar anti-social behaviour whilst driving for Glass Houses, it haunts me to think that it could have been me who'd changed everybody's life, including my own, for the sake of a conversation I can't even remember today.
When those first words of Glass Houses went down on paper however, the sending of the text which causes the accident and Tori Williams' overnight transformation into Public Enemy Number One, was what I would call a 'plot tool'. I needed to find an action which most readers would find abhorrent, only to reflect and concede that they had done similar thoughtless things themselves. I wanted to explore the, 'perfect storm', that instant when a moment of recklessness takes on a much more sinister turn. I wanted to ask the question that if we're lucky enough to avoid the perfect storm, are we any less guilty?
What I didn’t envisage when I was writing that first draft was that texting and other messaging at the wheel would become so wide-spread.
It took me eighteen months to write the first draft of Glass Houses and years and years of re-writing and editing to get it into book form. During this time texting at the wheel has become much more common. And the terrible consequences have, inevitably, increased in number. What I hadn't expected was that around the time of the launch of Glass Houses there would be a surge of public feeling against messaging whilst driving, so much so that the Daily Mail, citing the RAC's talk of an 'epidemic'' of drivers messaging and checking social media at the wheel, pushed for parliament to change the laws. They listened, last week announcing plans for the doubling of points to six and the fine to £200 for use of a hand-held phone in the car. More about this, here.
Of course, those are the punishments for committing the offence. Cause an accident whilst messaging and the penalties become irrelevant, as told so poignantly and eloquently, here in the Summer Break Campaign.
So why am I writing this? Glass Houses never set out as an instrument to deter people from texting at the wheel, but if one of the knock-on effects of reading the book achieves that, then nobody would be happier about that than me. Readers are constantly sending me clips of campaigning stories and videos, all hard-hitting, difficult to watch and with powerful messages. Thanks to Chris Swiffen for this one, particularly devastating when you see the picture the messenger had posted on Facebook, moments before she killed herself at the wheel.
I hope my children are watching these clips and will take it seriously when I say they have to put their phone in the back of the car when they drive. I hope their friends are, and their friends of friends. But, although I agree that targeting teens before they start driving has to be an effective start point, it isn't just teens. Our generation and beyond, well, we get complacent behind the wheel, don't we? Teens aren't the only ones who think that there can ever be a phone call which is important enough to make whilst driving.
We need to have a change of culture in much the same way as the Clunk Click campaign of the Seventies made it normal to fasten our seatbelts. I think it's started already and I want to help spread the message. I always think in life that there are some people who'd never do something, others who will do it whatever you tell them and then there's a whole malleable group in the middle who could be persuaded either way. I think this current swell against hand-held phones whilst driving has the power to positively influence a significant amount of people in the malleable middle.
I've read enough to support the message that there is never a reason important enough to text from the wheel. If I can help promote this via my blog and through supporting campaigns such as Summer Break's, not to mention, through the reading of Glass Houses, well, I'd feel a little better about when the man on the motorbike caught me offending.