TALKING on a handheld mobile phone while driving has been illegal in the UK since December 2003.
Yet it seems that on every journey you spot lots of drivers handsets pressed up to their ears, oblivious to the illegality, danger and threat of a £30 fixed penalty.
We organised an investigation. Accompanied by a photographer, Fleet News feature writer Phill Tromans took to the road. During a weekday mid-morning, the pair spent an hour on the A1 watching for drivers on their mobiles.
During that short period of time, they snapped more than 20 drivers who appeared to be nattering away with phones clamped to their ears. On these two pages we have printed 11 of the clearest shots which show motorists disregarding the ban.
Clearly then, this is not a minor problem. Despite the threat of a penalty and the fact that they are breaking the law, too many people are happy to talk on the phone while behind the wheel.
Some don’t seem bothered that people see them do it. One Ford Mondeo driver spotted our photographer as we passed him and gave him a middle-fingered salute, but didn’t put the phone down. Another even smiled as he went past us.
So how dangerous is using a hand-held phone behind the wheel, and what can be done to persuade drivers to stop doing it?
A spokeswoman for road safety charity Brake says: ‘The results of the Fleet News investigation don’t surprise us as we see people driving and talking on phones every day. It beggars belief that people still think it’s acceptable to use their phone when driving.
‘Driving is probably the most dangerous thing people do. To think you can do that and use a phone safely is ludicrous. I wouldn’t use a mobile and a chainsaw. People laugh at that but we liken it to driving and using a mobile.’
Brake thinks more education of the drivers is needed to make them understand the dangers they’re putting themselves and others in. ‘Education is important,’ says the spokeswoman.
‘We need to see the government take it seriously and put up some kind of advertising campaign that will reach out to people to show them the dangers.
‘We see stories in the media about crashes caused by drivers on their phones, but they soon get forgotten.’
She calls for increased fines and for penalty points to be added to offenders’ licences. Indeed, the Road Safety Bill currently going through Parliament at present will make the offence an endorsable one.
‘We must ensure drivers’ pockets are being hurt when they are caught and hopefully that would act as a further deterrent. The current fine is not high enough for people to stop what they are doing.
‘Every individual driver out there needs to act responsibly and make a conscious effort not to use their mobile phone while they are driving.’
Julie Jenner, chairman of fleet managers’ association ACFO, agrees that the penalties for talking on the move should be higher.
‘A £30 fine is not sufficient to deter people,’ she says.
‘Until the fine becomes a sizeable amount to hit people where it hurts and it becomes an endorsable offence I can’t see there being much change.
‘My advice to fleet managers is to very clearly define in their policies whether drivers are allowed to use phones in the cars or not.
‘I’ve seen policies saying people will not be penalised for not answering their phone on the move. There are varying degrees of policies but it’s fundamental to any successful fleet to have a policy of some description.’
The Transport Research Laboratory has conducted numerous tests into the effects of chatting and driving and shows it to be worse than driving at the legal limit for alcohol.
However, even when using a hands-free kit the results of the research show talking on a phone while driving is still more dangerous than having a drink before getting in the car.
Dr. Nick Reed, an academy fellow at TRL, says: ‘It appears that driving performance is most vulnerable to impairment by hands-free conversations under conditions in which there is significant mental workload, such as busy urban environments or high speed rural roads.
‘If it were decided that hands-free telephone conversation were also to be banned, enforcing the restriction would be difficult and controversial.’
PC Mick McCready, casualty reduction officer for Cambridgeshire Police, says talking on a phone is the second highest reason for giving out fixed penalty notices after not wearing a seatbelt. The force gave out more than £1,000 in fines last year. But he fears that the problem is getting worse.
‘It’s disappointing that use of mobile phones while driving is going up. I don’t think the deterrent is enough and I don’t believe people think they are putting themselves in danger. Most crashes are due to inattention and a phone makes it very difficult to drive to a good standard.
‘Your mind is not on the job and if the worst happens and you have a crash where a death occurs, and records show you were on the phone, it can make the consequences much more serious.’