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Handheld mobile phone use at the wheel ‘getting worse’

Mobile phone use while in a car

Across all age groups, a quarter (25%) of drivers – the equivalent of 10 million people – admit to illegally making or receiving calls while driving, compared to 24% in 2017, new RAC figures suggest.

Frighteningly though, the research for RAC Report on Motoring reveals dramatic rises in the proportion of younger working-age drivers admitting to using a phone illegally in 2018.

Drivers in the 25 to 34 and 35 to 44 age groups admit to a range of dangerous activities involving a handheld phone, with nearly half in the younger age group (47%) saying they make or receive calls while driving – up 7% on 2017, and compared to just 25% of drivers in all age groups.

This rises to a huge 57% among drivers who say they do this while stationary but with the engine running. It is a similar picture among those aged 35 to 44, with 39% admitting to making or receiving calls while driving, and 54% saying they do so while stationary.

RAC road safety spokesperson Pete Williams said: “While the introduction of tougher penalties for handheld phone use at the wheel was absolutely the right thing to do, we fear any benefits have run their course with this data showing illegal use is now rocketing among some groups of drivers.”

It is not just phone calls that are the problem – more than a third of drivers aged 25 to 34 (36%) send texts, social media posts or emails while driving, compared to just 16% of drivers in all age groups. It found that 29% of drivers in the 35-44 age group admit to doing this while driving, up a huge 10% on 2017 and back to the same level as in 2016.

The temptation to use a phone to take photos, selfies or videos is also clear with almost a third of drivers aged 25 to 34 (30%) saying they do this while driving, which is more than double the proportion of all drivers who do this (16%).

A quarter of those aged 35 to 44 (26%) also admit to doing this, up a huge 10% on 2017 and 2016, with more than a third (36%) admitting to doing so while stationary, up from 22% in 2017.

Among all drivers there are also significant increases in the percentage who say they use a handheld phone when they are in control of a vehicle, but not moving – such as when they are at traffic lights or sat in congestion.

A huge four-in-10 (40%) admit to checking social media messages, texts or emails while stationary – up from 38% last year – while a third (33%) say they send and post such messages, up from 29% in 2017. More than a fifth (22%) meanwhile record videos or take photos while stationary, up from 16% last year.

The findings have prompted the RAC to raise a warning flag about the apparent fading impact of the tougher penalties that were introduced in 2017 to curb illegal and dangerous use of handheld phones by drivers. As of March 2017, drivers face six penalty points and a £200 fine if caught.

Williams said: “Following the introduction of stronger penalties in 2017, we saw a promising shift with some drivers changing their behaviour for the better and becoming compliant with the law – indeed recent observational data suggested this was the case.

“Sadly, that didn’t signal the start of a longer-term trend with drivers now seemingly returning to their old ways and putting themselves and millions of other road users at risk.”

Looking at use at a regional level, while many parts of the UK recorded a reduction in drivers admitting to using a handheld phone illegally, London stands out as clearly bucking this trend.

A majority in the capital (52%) say they make or take calls using a handheld phone while driving, a figure which is up 16% from 2017 and is higher than in 2016 (47%).

Four-in-10 (41%) London drivers admit to using social media or texting while at the wheel, up from 23% last year and 32% the year before with nearly a quarter (24%) saying they do this ‘most’ or ‘all of the time’ while in the car, up from 10% in 2017.

An astonishing 59% say they use a phone in this way while stationary but with the engine running.

Williams continued: “We also know from our research that in many cases motorists know using a handheld phone at the wheel is wrong, and we can see a clear downward trend in people who think it’s safe to do it.

“But the problem remains, despite the fact the figures around deaths on our roads where someone was found to be using a mobile phone are stark – official figures show there were 32 needless deaths in 2017, with the true figure where a phone played a part in a collision likely to be significantly higher.

“While we believe our data provides valuable evidence to policymakers and road safety professionals about where the issues with compliance with the law perhaps lie, we also need much more data about the extent of the problem which it appears is really no less commonplace now than it was in 2016.

“But the fact remains the change in penalties for illegal phone use while driving has, on its own, not shifted behaviour as much as we would have liked.

“There is still a huge job to do in communicating to drivers the dangers of continuing to mix driving with illegally using a mobile phone.”

Williams understands that the offence of using a handheld phone is difficult for police officers to enforce, and with police resources as tight as ever the unfortunate reality is likely to be many instances where drivers are getting away with this dangerous act.

Inspector Frazer Davey for Avon and Somerset Police said: “The results of the survey are concerning.

“We know that driver distraction is a cause of collisions. As a road policing inspector I see the impact of driver distraction and people are losing their lives as a result of the use of mobile devices by drivers.

“The law is clear on the use of mobile devices in vehicles and police officers across the country will continue to prosecute drivers who choose to drive while distracted on their phones.

“The best advice I can give is to turn your mobile device off or into a flight safe mode when you get into your vehicle.

“If you need to use your device for satnav while you drive, then activate the voice controls and drive safe mode so messages and alerts don’t take your attention away from the road.

“Even a momentary glance at your device could make the difference between yours or someone else’s ability to return home to loved ones. It’s simply not worth the risk.”

In summary: what drivers across the UK admit to doing

Type of illegal use when using a handheld phone

2018 figure and change on 2017

Make and receive calls – while driving

25%, UP from 24%

Make and receive calls – engine on but stationary

39%, DOWN from 40%

Send texts, social media posts or use the internet – while driving

16%, UP from 13%

Send texts, social media posts or use the internet – engine on but stationary

33%, UP from 29%

Check texts, social media posts or use the internet – while driving

19%, UP from 18%

Check texts, social media posts or use the internet – engine on but stationary

40%, UP from 38%

Take photos or record video – while driving

14%, UP from 11%

Take photos or record video – engine on but stationary

22%, UP from 16%

Source: representative sample of UK drivers from RAC Report on Motoring, sample size 1,808

Tackling the issue: what comes next?

With the reduction in dangerous and illegal use of handheld phones having plateaued in previous years, and now on the increase among some groups, the RAC would like to see the following:

  • Better data on the extent of the problem – official data on just how widespread the problem is, is insufficient. The RAC would like to see more regular and robust collection of data by the Government.
  • Evaluate the benefits of technology – could new technology assist police forces in detecting use of handheld phones by drivers? The RAC calls on the Government and police forces to consider emerging detection and enforcement technologies.
  • ‘Always-on’ campaigning – further campaigns from the likes of THINK! and Be Phone Smart can continue to reinforce the dangers of drivers ignoring the law. The RAC has previously urged the Government to continue to invest in high-profile publicity on the issue

Tackling the issue: what can drivers do?

Be Phone Smart, the campaign which challenges people to rethink their attitude to using a mobile phone when they are driving, suggests they think about the following:

  • If you use a handheld phone at the wheel, ask yourself what couldn’t wait until you got out of your vehicle.
  • What are the chances of missing something genuinely important while you’re driving?
  • Consider the consequences if you got caught using a handheld phone at the wheel – the embarrassment, the hassle, the points, the fact you might even lose your licence, and the impact that would have on your life.
  • Think how you would feel if you were responsible for causing a crash because you let yourself be distracted by your phone
  • If you know, or think, you’re tempted to use a handheld phone at the wheel, put it away. If it’s out of sight, and silenced, you know you can stay focused on the road ahead

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  • John - 21/03/2019 12:58

    Face it - there's no change in the use of mobile phones. The change is simply that more people now admit to it.

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