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

Let’s start by posing a hypothetical question.

If a room of 100 people, chosen at random, were asked to raise their right arm in the air if they had ever used a mobile phone whilst driving, without it being on hands-free, how many would be likely to raise their hands?

It’s a fair bet that the answer would be ‘none’. Ok, perhaps there may be a handful of honest souls who would stick their arms in the air, on the proviso that no penalty was imposed on them for being so honest.

Has using a phone whilst driving, become as big a taboo as driving whilst under the influence of alcohol? Probably not. Many drivers, who would never dream of getting behind a wheel whilst drunk, would still think nothing of using a mobile phone whilst they are behind the wheel and would be horrified at the suggestion that what they are doing is in effect no different to driving whilst under the influence of alcohol. However, 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?

An article in FleetWorld magazine in 2018, highlighted the results of a survey of 2000 motorists by  CCTV specialists SmartWatch, which found that;

  • The most common way that drivers break the law, is by checking their mobile phones for messages whilst driving, with 21% of those surveyed, admitting that they did this.
  • 14% said they answered in-coming calls without using hands-free facilities
  • 69% of those who admitted using their phones whilst driving, said they only did it whilst they were moving slowly or whilst stuck in traffic.
  • 92% of drivers said they ignored their phone if it rang, whilst they were driving.

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.

Are tougher penalties working?

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that in 2017, the number of fines issued to drivers for using a phone whilst driving had dropped from 49,694 to 30,470. Whilst a drop in the numbers being prosecuted of almost 40% is to be welcomed, the numbers are still nevertheless high, given that these are just figures of those caught offending.

A 2017 Department of Transport survey on seatbelt and mobile phone use in cars during the preceding year, revealed that 1.1% of car drivers in the UK were observed using a hand-held mobile phone whilst driving on weekdays  That equates to an approximate figure of 445,000 drivers.

The reality is that a disappointingly high number of people still find it acceptable to flout the law on mobile phone use whilst driving.

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?

In posing this question, we are not for one minute suggesting that the contempt in which drink driving is held, should in any way be lessened. However, the reason that driving after drinking is so 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. There is really no difference. Yet, is the practice frowned upon by the public as much as drink driving is? Probably not.

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.

“If you know of a driver using a phone or you are a passenger with someone who does this, tell them to stop.”

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.”

Is it, therefore, time for much more severe penalties to be brought in, to provide a further deterrent to would be mobile phone using drivers? Would automatic 6-month driving bans for convicted offenders have the desired effect?  The government runs high profile public awareness campaigns about the dangers of drink driving, so is there any reason why the same level of awareness programmes should not be run to warn of the possible consequences of using a phone whilst driving?

If indeed the public see mobile phone use whilst driving as a bigger danger than drink driving, then the support is presumably there for a much tougher stance on driver mobile phone use. After all, the ‘danger’ that 90% of the public are referring to, is the danger that road traffic accident injuries and fatalities from the use of mobile phones whilst driving, will continue to rise.

Between 220 and 250 people died as a result of accidents caused by drunk driving, according to the latest Department of Transport figures released in 2018. 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 similar levels of the drink driving casualties, then surely now is the time for action?

Alistair Worth is the Managing Director of Mooneerams Solicitors, specialist personal injury solicitors. Alistair is based in the Cardiff office. Mooneerams also have offices in Aberdare, Caerphilly, Rhondda, Pontypridd and Bridgend. Alistair was born in the area and has lived locally all his life. He cares passionately about the local community, both business and social.

Mooneerams are active supporters of many grassroots projects in the region. You can contact Alistair and his team on 029 2048 3615 or use this contact form to email us.

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Alistair Worth

Alistair Worth

Director / Solicitor

Alistair was one of the founding partners of Mooneerams solicitors in 2002. He has specialised in personal injury law since qualifying in 1997.