But insurer that secured police data under FOI request says only a tiny fraction getting caught

Motorists are adopting a devil-may-care attitude towards illegally using their mobile phones at the wheel, with the number of drivers fined for doing so rising by a third over the past year to more than 171,000. What’s more, when the figures are viewed against research into motorists’ self-reported use of mobiles while driving, it’s clear that the vast majority of those breaking the law and putting lives at risk are going unpunished.

According to a Freedom of Information request conducted by the insurer Swiftcover, to which 41 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales responded, over 171,000 motorists were fined £60 and had their driving licences endorsed with three penalty points over the last 12 months, reports Mail Online. That compares to 115,900 in 2008.

Swiftcover added that it had conducted research among drivers which suggested that less than 3 per cent of those admitting using their mobile phone while driving are actually getting caught and fined.

Younger drivers accessing social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter was also highlighted as an area of particular concern, which was also a key finding of the 2011 edition of the RAC’s annual Report on Motoring.

According to road safety campaigners, the rise in the number of motorists being fined – a reversal of a dip observed in 2008 after stiffer penalties were introduced – is due to many drivers feeling that they can get away with it because of relatively low levels of enforcement and the fact that the punishment provides an insufficient deterrent.

Katie Shephard, director of Brake, told the Mail: “If 171,000 drivers have been caught, perhaps the penalties aren’t high enough.

“There is no call important enough to risk your life or that or another road user. Our message to all drivers is switch off your mobile when behind the wheel.”

Robin Reames, chief claims officer at Swiftcover, pointed out that drivers who caused a collision while using their mobile phones risked their insurance being rendered void, and could also face more serious sanctions than a fixed penalty notice depending on the charges brought.

“Not only do you face fines, disqualification or even the possibility of a jail sentence, but anyone who crashes their vehicle while on the phone will be unable to make a claim with their insurer,” he explained.

Road Safety Minister Mike Penning, quoted by the Mail, said: “To make sure drivers take this seriously we are increasing the fine for the offence from £60 to between £80 and £100 next year.”

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.