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Drivers want camera technology to identify illegal mobile phone use

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One in five (18%) of drivers aged 17-24 admit to taking part in video calls while behind the wheel, while almost a third (29%) of all drivers make and take calls on handheld phones, new research from the RAC suggests.

The illegal use of handheld mobile devices has been studied by the RAC since the 2016 Report on Motoring highlighted the issue was at ‘epidemic levels’.

However, this latest data suggests tougher penalties introduced in 2016, have failed to change in behaviour among motorists, particularly younger drivers.

With police resources stretched, four out of five (79%) drivers told the RAC they support the introduction of camera technology to identify illegal mobile phone use in the UK, with the vast majority (52%) strongly in favour of this happening.

RAC road safety spokesperson Simon Williams said: “Our figures highlight what many drivers already know – that the problem of illegal phone use at the wheel has far from disappeared.”

Furthermore, Williams says that the situation is not helped by mobile phone laws. Mobile phone use that doesn’t involve telecommunications, such as checking text messages, recording a video or changing pre-downloaded music, is not covered by the legislation, although drivers could be convicted for not being in proper control of their vehicles.

He added: “It’s significant that motorists are united in their desire to see camera-based technology, like that already in use in other countries, introduced on our roads to catch drivers who risk everyone’s safety by breaking the law in this way.

“If the behaviour of those who continue to think it’s safe to use a handheld phone while driving upwards of a tonne of metal is ever going to change, they need to believe there’s a reasonable chance of being caught.”

An increased popularity in video call services from the likes of WhatsApp and Snapchat are particularly concerning, with younger drivers more than twice as likely to say they make or receive video calls while driving – on average 8% of all UK drivers say they do this, with the figure rising to 13% among those aged 25 to 44.

Equally concerning is just under one-in-10 drivers aged 17 to 24 (9%) say they play games on their phones while driving, making them three-times more likely to do this compared to the average UK driver.

Other drivers’ use of handheld phones is the second biggest overall motoring-related concern identified in the 2020 RAC Report on Motoring research, after the state of local roads – a third of all UK drivers surveyed (32%) say the issue concerns them and strikingly nearly eight-in-10 (79%) now want to see camera technology introduced to catch drivers acting illegally.

The 29% of drivers of all ages in 2020 that say they make and receive calls on handheld phones while driving is a five percentage point increase on last year and the highest proportion since 2016.

While younger drivers are still more likely to do so (42%, down from 51% last year), those in the 25 to 44 age group are also statistically more likely to break the law in this way (32% admit to doing so, almost unchanged on 2019’s figure of 33%).

More positively, the proportion of drivers admitting to other dangerous activities such as checking or sending text messages or taking photos or video appear to be reducing – although it is unclear whether this is simply down to lower overall car use this year as a result of the pandemic.

Less than one in 10 (8%) of all drivers say they text or send other messages while driving, down from 14% last year and from a high of 20% in 2016.

But young drivers are again much more likely to break the law – 15% of those aged 17 to 24 say they are doing it in 2020, although this is down substantially on 2019 (37%).

More than one-in-10 motorists (14%) this year say they check texts or other app notifications while driving, down from 17% in 2019. Among younger drivers, the proportion is 22%, down from 35% last year.

Williams said: “While there’s been a reduction in some elements of this dangerous activity, more people say they are making and taking calls now than at any point since 2016, shortly before tougher penalties were introduced.

“Our findings from 2016 were a watershed moment which led to the UK Government calling for people to make illegal mobile phone use while driving as socially unacceptable as drink-driving.

“The fact drivers still state it’s their second biggest motoring concern of all shows that more progress still needs to be made here.”

Brake, the road safety charity, is calling for a complete ban on the use of a phone when driving, including hands-free.

The road safety campaigners claim this view is supported by evidence, which shows hands-free devices impairing driving as much as hand-held and are urging the Government to provide clarity in the law, before more lives are lost.

Joshua Harris, director of campaigns for Brake said: “Any use of a phone behind the wheel is dangerous but the fact that such a large proportion of young people admit to making video calls and playing games when driving really beggars belief.

“We need clarity in the law around phone use behind the wheel, and we need it now. The Government must implement a full ban on phone use when driving, including hands-free, to make the dangers crystal clear to the public and to crack-down on this reckless behaviour. The police must also be provided with the right tools and investment to enforce the roads effectively.

“In the wrong hands, a car is a lethal weapon and even a moment’s distraction from the road can have catastrophic consequences. More than 75 people are killed on UK roads every day and with driver distraction levels seemingly on the rise, the Government must step in and act, now.”  

Inspector Frazer Davey, of the Avon and Somerset Police Roads Policing unit, said that the importance of concentrating on driving “cannot be overstated”.

“Using a mobile phone while in charge of a car puts you and everyone else at risk. The consequences of allowing yourself to be distracted while you are driving can be catastrophic. It’s simply not worth it.”

Type of handheld mobile phone use while driving

2020 and 2019 figure (all drivers)

2020 and 2019 figure (drivers aged 17-24)

Make and receive calls

29%, up from 23%

42%, down from 51%

Send texts, social media posts or use the internet

8%, down from 14%

15%, down from 37%

Check texts, social media posts or app notifications

14%, down from 17%

22%, down from 35%

Take photos or record video

6%, down from 13%

14%, down from 35%

Make or receive video calls



Play a game on a mobile phone



Source: representative sample of UK drivers from RAC Report on Motoring. UK sample size: 3,068 

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  • Edward Handley - 08/10/2020 17:37

    I sense a large measure of double standards slipping, if not downright hypocrisy in here: Virtually everyone seems to agree that using a mobile phone while driving is a bad idea, but at the same time the vehicle manufacturers are busy getting rid of knobs and switches and replacing them with smart screens and infotainment systems, which are just as distracting as a smart phone, or possibly even more so as the touch screens may control driving essential functions. You can feel for a switch or knob and their use becomes intuitive once you are familiar with a vehicle, but smart screens are fickle and you need to look at them to make them work in most cases. If you hands are dirty, oily or, sweaty knobs and switches work just fine and can be wiped off with a cloth later on. Smart screens are affected, and if you need to clean the screen you really need to park up and switch off or risk re-programming the radio by mistake. Designers and manufacturers should remember the wise saying: "Just because you can does not mean you should."

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