The overwhelming majority of motorists (83%) think it is unacceptable to take even a short call with a hand-held phone while driving.
But worryingly, 12% believe this is a reasonable thing to do, up from 7% last year, according to this year’s RAC Report on Motoring.
The survey of more than 1,500 drivers also found that almost three-quarters (73%) think it is not safe to use a phone to text or check social media while in stationary traffic, although 17% believe this poses little danger.
Drivers who use their mobile phones to talk, text or use the internet are right at the top of the most significant issues of overall concern to motorists this year.
Just over a third (34%) rank these potential dangers as one of their top four issues of concern in the annual report.
Almost nine in 10 drivers (86%) believe that cars are safer now than in the past, but only 37% think today’s motorists are more safety conscious. Three in 10 (30%) believe driving standards are currently higher than in the past, but 41% think the opposite is true.
David Davies, executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS), said: “The behaviour of other drivers ranks very highly as a concern.
“Mobile phones are top of the list but other devices, such as entertainment systems, can cause distraction.”
Figures published by the Department for Transport, in June 2015, showed a small increase in the number of road accidents in 2014: the number of deaths on the road rose by 4% compared with the previous year, while those seriously injured rose by 5%.
Part of the increase can be explained by the rise in road-traffic volumes, which were up by 2.4% over this period.
However, it is very difficult to say to what extent modern distractions such as smartphones and sat-nav devices have had on accident rates.
The greater levels of concern recorded in this year’s report may be attributable to the fact that motorists are more aware of mobile phone use by drivers as a result of widespread media coverage on the subject.
Davies continued: “Despite cars being safer than ever, road casualty numbers increased last year and we have to find ways to ensure that drivers give 100% of their attention to the road ahead.”
Department for Transport statistics found that 1.6% of motorists in England and Scotland were observed using a hand-held mobile phone while in moving traffic in 2014.
Daryl Lloyd, head of road safety statistics at the Department for Transport (DfT), said: “Although this seems to be very low it still means that every time you go out of the house, out of every hundred cars, there are going to be two people on the phone.
“So, because you see a lot of vehicles every day, you see it happening frequently despite the low rate.”
The DfT’s figure is in stark comparison to the 20% of drivers who admitted to using a hand-held mobile phone while driving in the Lex Autolease Report on Company Motoring 2015.
But however rife the use of hand-held devices are, motorists would rather see more consistent application of existing laws than higher penalties for the likes of mobile phone use.
Almost eight in ten (79%) say there is no point in increasing fines or penalties unless there is effective enforcement, while 62% think there are not enough police on the roads to enforce driving laws.
An increase in traffic police may be unrealistic, given the fiscal challenges currently faced, but the RAC calls on them to halt the decline in the number of traffic police officers.
Ministry of Justice figures published earlier this year showed that the number of traffic police officers in England and Wales fell by 22.7% between 2010 and 2014.