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Is using a mobile phone whilst driving as unacceptable as drink driving?

Carl Waring

Carl Waring

|  6th December 2021  |

man driving car with one hand and holding phone in the other

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Article updated – Dec 2021

Has using a phone whilst driving, become as big a taboo as driving whilst under the influence of alcohol, is?

The answer is that it probably has not. Many drivers, who would never dream of getting behind a wheel whilst drunk, still think nothing of using a mobile phone whilst they are behind the wheel.

Those drivers would be horrified at the suggestion that what they are doing is no different to driving whilst under the influence of alcohol. Yet, when you think about it, the reason for all the anti-drink driving media campaigns and the criminal law penalties for driving whilst drunk are for no other reason than this; driving whilst drunk impairs your ability to drive. Frequently the consequences of impaired driving are road traffic accidents in which people are injured, often seriously; sometimes fatally.driving with mobile phone in hand

If you want up to date facts to back up this assertion, here they are:

The latest government figures released in August 2021, show that in 2019:

  • An estimated 250 people died in accidents in Great Britain where at least one driver was over the legal drink drive limit.
  • Approximately 2,050 people killed, or seriously injured, in drink drive accidents.
  • 7,800 people were killed, or injured to some degree, in drink drive accidents.

What is the common factor in using a mobile phone while you are driving and drinking whilst under the influence of alcohol? In both cases driving ability is impaired – in one circumstance by the effects of alcohol on the brain, in the other by becoming distracted by a mobile phone and as a result not focusing on the road ahead.

So, is there really any difference between deciding to use a phone whilst driving and deciding to drink and drive?

Let’s first take a look at some of the facts and figures surrounding mobile phone use whilst driving.

What is the evidence for saying that many people use their mobile phones whilst driving?

The RACs Report on Motoring 2021 produced some interesting figures in relation to mobile phone use whilst driving:

  1. 43% of under 25-year-olds admit to using their phones to make or take calls whilst they are driving.(engine on)
  2. 34% of 17- to 44-year-olds have said they send texts whilst stationary during the course of driving somewhere.
  3. 1 in 5 of under 25s say they have sent or received a video call whilst driving.
  4. Nevertheless, 73% of motorists say they do not use their phone whilst driving with 59% adamant they do not use their mobiles whilst stationary with the engine running.
  5. On their website, the road safety charity Brake quote facts from an academic study by experts from the University of Western Australia, which found that drivers who talk on phones whilst driving (including those using hands free phones) are four times more likely to be involved in a vehicle crash resulting in personal injury, than those who don’t use phones during their journey.

Perhaps the most damning evidence of the extent to which drivers are picking up their phones whilst behind the wheel, whether to take calls, to text or to catch up on social media, is what we see with our own eyes, on the roads each day.

How often do we pass vehicles coming in the opposite direction, where the driver is quite openly driving with one hand on the steering wheel and the other with a phone in it, glued to an ear? How often too, do we see drivers who are going at unnaturally slow speeds, hogging the middle or outer lane of the motorway, because they are distracted by looking down at a mobile phone sitting on their lap?

What is the law about using a mobile phone whilst driving?

In March 2017, tougher measures were introduced in an attempt to clamp down on handheld mobile phone use whilst driving.

It is illegal to hold a phone or sat nav whilst driving a vehicle or a motorcycle. Instead, drivers must use the phone by means of hands-free access, such as;

  • A Bluetooth headset
  • Voice command
  • Dashboard holder
  • Windscreen mount
  • Built in sat nav

The police can stop a driver if they think they are not in control of their vehicle because they are being distracted and this can result in a prosecution.

The law still applies if a driver is:

  • Stationary in traffic
  • Stopped at traffic lights
  • Supervising a learner driver

The new penalties introduced in 2017 mean that offenders are liable to be penalised with a fine of £200 and can get 6 penalty points if convicted of using a handheld mobile phone while driving.

In November 2021, the government announced it is to tighten the rules surrounding hand held mobile phone use while driving.

Whilst the existing laws already make it illegal to drive and text or make a phone call using a hand-held phone, the new rules will tighten up the rules still further by banning drivers from using their phones to:

  • Take photos or videos with their phones
  • Scroll through playlists
  • Play online games

The penalties are as above: a fixed penalty notice of £200 and six points on their licence.

The rules surrounding mobile phone use have been tightened to remove loopholes in the law which have enabled, in particular, drivers who take videos on their phones of the aftermath of road traffic accidents, to get off the charges brought against them under the existing law.

Using a phone whilst driving isn’t a victimless crime

The core of the problem is that picking up a phone whilst driving, whatever the reason for doing so, puts the driver in danger of becoming distracted. The distraction may only be momentary.

Alternatively, the use of the phone to text or worse still, to check social media, will distract the driver for significantly longer than a moment.

In either case, the distraction carries with it a high probability of the driver losing control of his vehicle. In the worst-case scenario, a road traffic accident may be the consequence of even a moments distraction.

According to the latest Department of Transport figures, drivers using mobile phones caused 33 deaths on Britain’s roads in 2017. This was an increase on the previous year’s figures.

A survey by IAM RoadSmart, found that 90% of those surveyed thought that the danger posed by drivers using their mobile phones for calls, texts or to access social media was a greater threat to road safety than drink driving.

Should holding a phone whilst driving become as much of a taboo as drink driving?

The reason that driving after drinking is almost universally frowned upon, is because it impairs a driver’s ability to drive safely. In turn, that puts the lives of other road users in jeopardy, as well as that of the driver and any passengers in his vehicle.

The same can be said for driving whilst using a mobile phone. The ‘impairment’ comes from the distraction caused by picking up and using the phone.

Paul Singh, the CEO of SmartWatch, has said;

“Studies consistently show that using a mobile phone while driving is as dangerous as drink driving. Yet 7 million drivers are consistently flouting the law and ignoring concerted efforts to clamp down on the problem.

“The way to tackle this abuse is to make using your phone at the wheel as socially unacceptable as drink driving and we all have responsibility to hammer home this point.

Sarah Sillers, CEO of IAM RoadSmart, has been quoted as saying;

“Motorists need to make the connection that using a hand-held phone is a major distraction to the task of driving. There is no such thing as multi-tasking when it comes to driving – when you drive, there is nothing else you should be doing.

“Handheld mobile phone use is a top concern for British drivers and heavy fines and extra points are a key part of the government strategy to combat it.

“Clearly this is not enough and unless selfish drivers fear that they will be caught, far too many will continue to flout the law.

“What we want to see is a combination of effective penalties, more personal and corporate responsibility and vehicle, smartphone and social media companies working together to generate hi-tech solutions to the distractions caused by their technology.”

Perhaps it is time for much more severe penalties to be introduced. Drink driving almost always attracts a driving ban as part of the penalty after a drink driving conviction in the criminal courts.

Fines are one thing, but the penalty that deters most potential drink drivers from flouting the law, is the likelihood of getting a driving ban with the inconvenience, ignominy, shame, and potential loss of livelihood involved.

Approximately 7800 road users were killed, seriously injured, or slightly injured as a result of accidents caused by at least one drunk driver, according to the latest Department of Transport figures referred to above.

If we are serious about ensuring that the numbers of fatal road traffic accidents caused by driver distraction due to mobile phone use, do not rise to the levels of drink driving casualties, then surely now is the time to punish the offence of driving whilst using a mobile phone in the same way that we treat the offence of drink driving – with the imposition of a driving ban.

Alistair Worth is the Managing Director of Mooneerams Solicitors, specialist personal injury solicitors.

Mooneerams are experienced road traffic accident solicitors who regularly act for the injured victims of road accidents. In particular, we have helped thousands of clients to recover compensation over the past 20 years

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Pedestrian accident claims

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You can contact Alistair and his team on 029 2048 3615 or use our contact form to email us.

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