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Legal reform allows drivers to use mobile phones at stop lights

Drivers are still not allowed to use communications devices while their vehicles are in motion.

Mies räplää matkapuhelinta ajaessa autoa.
Drivers in a University of Jyväskylä study admitted to using WhatsApp and Tinder while driving. Image: Timo Sihvonen / Yle

New traffic laws to take effect next June will allow drivers to use electronic devices such as mobile phones while their vehicles are at traffic lights or otherwise at a standstill.

However the legal reform states that the use of such devices should not prevent drivers from being responsive to changing situations.

Apart from this change, the legislation regarding the use of electronic devices while driving is much the same as it had been before: drivers of motorised vehicles are not allowed to hold communications devices for use while the vehicle is in motion.

Although the law is not as strict as before, a 2014 study by the Finnish Road Safety Council found that drivers in Finland have stern views on people who use mobile phones while behind the wheel.

Up to 80 percent of respondents surveyed at the time said they considered texting or social media use while driving to be serious or very serious offences – comparable to driving without a license or running a red light.

Another study by the University of Jyväskylä last year found that drivers often used social apps such as WhatsApp and Tinder on the road, even on busy city streets.

"No good reason for change"

Senior transport adviser Kimmo Kiiski led a transport and communications ministry team working on the legal reforms. He said that the new regulations governing the use of communications devices are not especially problematic.

"This is not about traffic safety if the car isn’t moving. People are still not allowed to use devices so that they affect their attentiveness or disrupt the smooth flow of traffic," he noted.

MPs also did not see a problem with the legal changes when the reforms were being considered in parliament. Instead, they approved the planned reforms as they were proposed in summer 2018.

However the road safety council has opposed the change. Managing director Anna-Liisa Tarviainen said that section of the legislation should not have been amended.

"I don’t see any good or justifiable reason for the change. There are all kinds of pedestrians at traffic lights and mobile phones provide unnecessary distractions," she argued.

According to Tarviainen police will have to assess what constitutes disruptive use depending on the situation in question. The council’s report noted that mobile phone use slows drivers’ reaction time by half a second.

Meanwhile ministry adviser Kiiski pointed to the number of electronic devices and systems currently available in modern vehicles. He noted that the law no longer specifically mentions phones but talks about communications devices in a general way.

"The rapid digitalisation and automation of vehicles make it difficult to set legal limits about which devices should be allowed and which should not. All actions affect concentration while driving. We cannot prohibit everything," he added.

According to Kiiski, inattentiveness is a major problem for all road users, not just drivers, but also pedestrians and cyclists.

He added that the new regulations also anticipate the future, since cars are becoming more modern and electronic equipment is proliferating and becoming more sophisticated.

A threat to traffic flow?

Oulu traffic police head Pasi Rissanen said that he was surprised when he first heard of the legal reform. He said that apart from traffic accidents, he is worried about how the change would affect traffic flows in urban areas. He noted that dividing attention between a phone and the road could affect concentration in traffic.

"It remains to be seen whether there’ll be more delays at traffic lights. Then nowhere near the number of vehicles will necessarily get through intersections as what traffic planners aimed for," he pointed out.

Rissanen said that in future police will have to check for phone use in cases when drivers don’t respond to traffic lights because they are on the phone.

"The use of smart devices has exacerbated the situation in traffic. There has been a marked increase in texting day-to-day," he noted.

Tarviainen said she also has concerns about the smooth flow of traffic. "How many social media users will drop their phones when the lights change at intersections and move on smartly?"

Esko Kurkinen, a driving instructor from Kajaani in eastern Finland, pointed out that even if drivers use devices at stop lights, they will be distracted by their phones even before they come to a stop and afterwards as well.

Kurkinen said that in his driving classes he teaches students to always mute their phones while driving. He added that even in a training situation it possible to see how drivers lose focus when phones can be heard.

"People get the feeling that they must answer the phone, even if it’s not such an important message or call," he concluded.

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