A study has found that the number of car drivers illegally using hand-held mobile phones at the wheel has doubled in the past two years. Similar patterns were observed among taxi and van drivers.
The research was carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), which surveyed 12,000 cars and taxis and 2,500 vans in 30 locations across London, and discovered that 2.8% of car drivers are now using hand-held phones while driving.
That compares to 1.4% in 2007, the year that penalties were toughened through the introduction of a £60 fine and three penalty points on the offender’s license, and is higher than the 2.6% recorded in 2006 before the law changed.
The TRL said that the picture in London was likely to be reflected nationally, and added that drivers using mobile phones were four times more likely to be involved in a crash, with their “reaction time is likely to be slower".
According to the TRL’s researchers, women aged 17-29 were more likely than other drivers to use a hand-held phone while at the wheel, while hands-free kits are most likely to be used by men aged 30-59.
Dr Nick Reed of the TRL told the BBC: "Your reaction time is likely to be slower, you're more likely to drift across into the adjacent lanes and you're less aware of what's going on around you."
He continued: “You're less likely to check the mirrors and know there are vehicles there so you're at a much greater risk of having an accident."
The TRL report added that use of hands-free mobile phones by car drivers has risen from 1.2% in 2006 to 4.8% this year, and the rise in use of mobile phones while driving – whether hand-held or hands-free – is of grave concern to road safety campaigners.
Sarah Fatica, from the charity Brake, said; "It's incredibly worrying that people still don't take seriously the dangers that talking on your phone while driving pose. The biggest problem is that your concentration is impaired, and that could result in you crashing and hurting yourself, hurting somebody else, or worst of all killing somebody."
AA president Edmund King called for greater attention to be drawn to the issue, saying: "I think we need more police campaigns, I think we need more publicity campaigns. If you think back to seat-belt wearing, 'clunk, click, every trip' and the Jimmy Saville stuff way back gradually had an effect but it does take time."
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, he pointed out that “if you have a crash, one of the first things police investigators do now is check your mobile phone records to see if you have been using a phone,” adding that if that was found to be the case, a charge of dangerous driving could apply.
That’s exactly what happened to Kiera Coultas, jailed for four years in February 2008 after being found guilty of killing 19-year-old Jordan Wickington in Southampton a year earlier when she was sending a text while driving at 45mph in a 30mph zone. Police had been unable to work out why she had failed to see the cyclist until they examined her mobile phone records.
Similar technology was employed to help convict lorry driver Steven Welsh, sentenced to two years eight months imprisonment in September this year for killing cyclist Gary Livingstone on the A50 near Uttoxeter.
Stephen Ladyman, who as then transport minister brought in the stricter penalties, told the BBC that the law may need to be amended again.
"I think one of the things that the government might have to look at now is increasing the range of people who can report you for this, and maybe have an on-the-spot fine," he said, adding: "Perhaps allow police community support officers or traffic wardens to take a note of car numbers."
Meanwhile, a statement from the Department for Transport said: "We run publicity campaigns to highlight the dangers of calling or texting at the wheel. However, some people are still needlessly risking their own lives and putting others in danger for the sake of a text or a call."
Earlier this year, we reported on calls by the London Cycling Campaign to report drivers illegally using their mobile phones while at the wheel to the police.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.