Smartphone use at wheel more dangerous than driving while drunk or smoking cannabis, says IAM

Road safety charity urges government, handset manufacturers and social networks to get message across to motorists

by Simon_MacMichael   March 2, 2012  

driving using mobile phone

Road safety charity IAM says that new research commissioned by it from the Transport research Laboratory (TRL) using its DigiCar driving simulator shows that accessing social networks while behind the wheel is more dangerous than driving while drunk or after smoking cannabis. Nevertheless, 8 per cent of drivers – equivalent to 3.5 million motorists in Britain – use social networks or check email while driving.

That rises to almost one in four 17-24-year-olds, the age group with drivers most at risk of being involved in a crash in the first place. The report follows revelations in the 2011 edition of the RAC’s Report on Motoring, published last September, that found similar levels of smartphone usage at the wheel among young drivers in particular.

IAM says that the government should take the lead in underlining to motorists the danger to them and other road users of using a smartphone while driving, and that handset manufacturers and social network operators can also help reinforce the safety message.

It points out that the success in recent decades of initiatives regarding use of seatbelts and the unacceptability of drunk driving show there is no reason that similar results cannot be achieved when it comes to smartphones.

Commenting on the research, IAM chief executive Simon Best said: “This research shows how incredibly dangerous using smartphones while driving is, yet unbelievably it is a relatively common practice.

“If you’re taking your hand off the wheel to use the phone, reading the phone display and thinking about your messages, then you’re simply not concentrating on driving.

“It’s antisocial networking and it’s more dangerous than drink driving and it must become just as socially unacceptable.

“Young people have grown up with smartphones and using them is part of everyday life.

“But more work needs to be done by the government and social network providers to show young people that they are risking their lives and the lives of others if they use their smartphones while driving.”

In a controlled experiment using the TRL’s DigiCar simulator – full details of how the research was conducted and analysed can be found in the full report – it was discovered that, when sending and receiving messages through Facebook:

• reaction times slowed by around 38% and participants often missed key events;
• participants were unable to maintain a central lane position resulting in an increased number of unintentional lane departures; and
• were unable to respond as quickly to the car in front  gradually changing speed.

IAM said that a comparison of those results to previous research showed that smartphone usage impaired driving more than alcohol, smoking cannabis or texting at the wheel did.

It added:

• Using a smartphone for social networking slows reaction times by 37.6 per cent;
• texting slows reaction times by 37.4 per cent;
• hands-free mobile phone conversation slows reaction times by 26.5 per cent;
• cannabis slows reaction times by 21 per cent;
• alcohol (above UK driving limit but below 100mg per 100ml of blood) slows reaction time by between six and 15 per cent; and
• alcohol at the legal limit slows reaction times by 12.5 per cent.

Nick Reed, senior researcher at the TRL, added: "Our research clearly demonstrates that driver behaviour was significantly and dramatically impaired when a smartphone was being used for social networking.

“Drivers spent more time looking at their phone than the road ahead when trying to send messages, rendering the driver blind to emerging hazards and the developing traffic situation.

“Even when hazards were detected, the driver's ability to respond was slowed. The combination of observed impairments to driving will cause a substantial increase in the risk of a collision that may affect not only the driver but also their passengers and other road users.

“Smartphones are incredibly useful and convenient tools when used appropriately and responsibly. Their use for social networking when driving is neither," he concluded.

As the website highlights in its page on mobile phones and driving, using a mobile phone while driving is punishable by a minimum fine of £60 and three penalty points.

Stand by any road in Britain, however, and it won’t take long to see someone drive past with a phone glued to their ear or checking their screen, evidence that the message is not getting through and that the law is not being adequately enforced.

23 user comments

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Wow. I'm quite shocked at how much it slows your reaction compared to alcohol. But then again. When you've had a drink in your trying to watch the road more, knowing that you should not be driving. It can only be worse when you combine a smartphone with a heavy goods vehicle, like i have seen many drivers of buses and lorries using phones not for calls before. I'm writing this while traveling on a bus. Its near impossible to concertrate on anything elsre. Just as well i'm only a passenger.

Gkam84's picture

posted by Gkam84 [9361 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 14:09


"Adequately enforced"? Is it being enforced at all? When seatbelts were made mandatory their use was muscularly enforced by the police. Now we appear to have no police on the roads to enforce the law. Government/police and local authorities are strapped for cash. mobile phones while driving and fog lights on when it's not foggy would appear to be a cash rich revenue stream.


Wooliferkins's picture

posted by Wooliferkins [50 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 14:10

2 Likes wrote:
alcohol (above UK driving limit but below 100mg per 100ml of blood) slows reaction time by between six and 15 per cent; and alcohol at the legal limit slows reaction times by 12.5 per cent.

So if you're legally pissed your reaction times are 12.5% slower and if you're slightly illegally pissed your reaction times may only be 6% slower? Hmm. Dodgy summarisation somewhere along the line.

I think the concept of effect on reaction time is a red herring for smartphone use. I rather suspect it's not that your reaction times are affected, but simply that you're flitting between tasks and whilst actually operating a phone you are not able to observe things which require a reaction. When you revert your concentration to the road your reaction times are fine.

Still, it's good to see figures that show this is a massive problem. I really wish The Times's campaign wasn't so city-focused so that they'd included points in the manifesto such as short driving bans for things like use of phones whilst driving. It's loss of concentration from driviers approaching from behind that kills rural cyclists, quite different to the causes of death in the urban environment.

Bez's picture

posted by Bez [531 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 14:27


The bloke in the picture isn't wearing a seatbelt either.

Twitter: @velosam

SamShaw's picture

posted by SamShaw [321 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 14:32


Raise the fine and the minimum number of points then, as the article points out, it's such common practice that it would be really easy for the police to crack down and 'get the message across'.

I would think the threat of points and the subsequent rise of already sky-high insurance costs would help deter younger drivers but until prosecutions are common enough that everyone knows a 'friend of a friend who got done for it' the threat is too remote to be effective.

joemmo's picture

posted by joemmo [1112 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 14:34


if I didn't ride a bike I'd think this was stupid and dangerous, but as it is, I find the idea of checking mails and posting status updates while driving, just downright scary.

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice...

posted by notfastenough [3722 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 14:35

1 Like

A change in the law is needed as enforcement is non-existant: can i suggest that it becomes legal to put a d-lock through the window of any driver using their phone? Big Grin

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posted by G-bitch [320 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 14:46

1 Like

The last two days, I've been pleasantly surprised at motorists actually stopping at the zebra crossing near our house to let me cross (a rare event these days). Less so when I've noticed that both had mobile phones glued to their ears. next to a police station, too.

As pointed out in some of the comments, enforcement is lacking and needs to be the first step. I live in a small town and probably see dozens of drivers do it every day, male and female, all ages.

Simon_MacMichael's picture

posted by Simon_MacMichael [9501 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 15:04


On a coupe of occasions I've stopped and pretended to take a photo of someone using a cellphone while driving. The reactions are rather amusing.

Since texting or checking the Internet is more dangerous than drinking and driving, why is the offence not given higher penalties. Those found using a cellphone while driving should be banned for 12 months and if texting or Internet use is involved, there should be a compulsory retest.

It does beg the question of why car manufacturers are not doing more. Modern cars do have technology to detect when someone is sitting in the seat or the vehicle is in motion with the engine running. It wouldn't be too hard or costly to add coding to the electronics that would trip a very loud audible warning should a single occupant attempt to use a phone while at the wheel.


posted by OldRidgeback [2579 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 15:52

1 Like

OldRidgeback wrote:
Since texting or checking the Internet is more dangerous than drinking and driving, why is the offence not given higher penalties.

I suspect because it would be a tax on the beleaguered motorist, and another example of how the yoghurt weavers are oppressing the hard-working man in the street (or at least the hard-working man slewing from one side to the other of it), and besides, Top Gear showed last week that you can drive whilst sewing or wearing a sleeping bag, so clearly any idiot can drive whilst updating Facebook.

A mandatory short ban and a retest (and no fine) for any distraction/impairment offence is the main thing missing from the Cyclesafe debate that could make a massive difference to the level of risk for cyclists on rural roads.

Bez's picture

posted by Bez [531 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 16:37


Bez wrote:
A mandatory short ban and a retest (and no fine) for any distraction/impairment offence is the main thing missing from the Cyclesafe debate that could make a massive difference to the level of risk for cyclists on rural roads.

This - a time-out or sin-bin for crap driving. Drivers can't complain that it's a revenue generation scheme, and it would really make people think. There would still be an enforcement problem, but a four week driving ban is much more of a deterrent than a £60 fine...

posted by step-hent [718 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 16:52


Another suggestion I've seen elsewhere is to block mobile phone access (which I suppose could be extended to social networks with their co-operation) for a month, say, for drivers found using their mobile.

Simon_MacMichael's picture

posted by Simon_MacMichael [9501 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 16:56


Simon_MacMichael wrote:
Another suggestion I've seen elsewhere is to block mobile phone access (which I suppose could be extended to social networks with their co-operation) for a month, say, for drivers found using their mobile.

Yes, a ban combined with the above would be good. Even better if there is a message saying "XYZ is incommunicado due to being convicted of an anti-social driving offence..."

Ooooh, me legs...

posted by Oh heck... [47 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 19:00


What is so urgent that drivers need to risk life and their freedom to update their social media friends or followers !
Most of twitter and facebook is a waste of time when you have a life !

Like the breathe tester lock , cars should have a block that disables telephone signals when the ignition is on !

Of course the emergency services should not be blocked but that drawback can be overcome .

Skippy(advocate for "Disabled / Para Sport")@skippydetour. blogging as skippi-cyclist.blogspot & Parrabuddy.blogspot currently on the road with ProTour Grand Tour Events .

skippy's picture

posted by skippy [409 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 19:38


I get properly hacked off by this, some of the occurances just this week:
Pulled up at lights by a driver I'd already spotted on the phone, give my usual "phone" handsignal followed by the hang-up sign. He then pulls forward, rolls down the window and says "Did I hit you or get in your way?". Clearly the fact that it's illegal isn't enough of a deterant as long as you don't hinder or injure it's fine!

Later that day on the way home I pull up alongside an older chap in a rather expensive looking 61 plate Merc, with at least 1 person in the passenger seat (can't remember in the back, it was dark) with his phone glued to his ear. He got the phone sign as I rode off down the road. Further up the road he stops at a set of filters lights which gets the cars behind him leaning on their horn and a yell of "Put your phone down!" from me.

On the upside I have managed to get one driver pulled over having spotted them on their phone and signalling to the police car behind me, can't tell you the feeling of satisfaction after they passed me and put on the blue lights Big Grin

posted by bassjunkieuk [32 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 19:42


There is actually an exception for emergency service vehicles (and cabbies to an extent) in that CB radios AREN'T covered by the same law that governs mobile phone use. I don't have the exact website I located it on but it stated: "There is an exception to the legislation that allows vehicle drivers to use two way radios to communicate providing the radio does not also double up as a mobile telephone. This allows couriers, ambulance drivers and other emergency service personnel to communicate as well as drivers of private taxi cabs."

This was something I had to look into following me posting a video of an ambulance driver who appeared to be texting/using a phone whilst driving.

posted by bassjunkieuk [32 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 19:46


I imagine the police just don't have the time or inclination to stop drivers on phones. The only time they do is when they have a blitz which really isn't going to change the culture..

jaunty angle: bikes and communications

ragtag's picture

posted by ragtag [184 posts]
2nd March 2012 - 19:51


What I find most concerning about this is that the drivers who have most recently been trained in driving(the 17-24 year olds) are those who most often ignore the law. What does this say of the driving test that you can pass it and have such a blatant disregard of the law. We need a much stricter driving test(one that actually challenges drivers), we need a graded licence system and we need regular retests to ensure that we know our responsibilities to drive and keep up our skills.

There needs to be a strong element of education into what can happen if you use your smartphone whilst driving, or drink, or speed, or squeeze cyclists.

All the other debates about cycle safety pale into insignificance when compared to the urgent need for better driving.

posted by unenlightened [2 posts]
3rd March 2012 - 8:47

1 Like

A lot of the above comments blast the car drivers doing this (and rightly so) but nobody has said anything about the number of cyclist that use their mobiles whilst cycling. I agree that if the use of phones of any type is more dangerous than DUI then the penalty should reflect this, but a law should be introduced for the cyclist (and horserider, yes round my way they can't ride a horse without updating that fact!) so that all road users are seen to be treated equally.


posted by FATBEGGARONABIKE [733 posts]
3rd March 2012 - 9:25


I'm trying - and failing - to remember the last time a saw a cyclist riding while using a mobile phone (okay, I don't live in a city where the situation might be different).

But on my 10-minute walk to the cafe this morning, I saw a couple of car drivers, one lorry driver and even a woman at the wheel of a horse box all with their mobiles glued to their ears.

I know I'd rather be hit by a bike being ridden by someone on the phone than any of those vehicles, and as you imply, cycling while using a mobile isn't the subject of a specific law - but driving a motor vehicle while using one most certainly is.

Simon_MacMichael's picture

posted by Simon_MacMichael [9501 posts]
3rd March 2012 - 11:34


Simon I'm not saying this is the norm (cycling whilst phoning) but it does happen and it is very obvious when it does, even to a fairly inattentive car driver, What I was trying to get across was a point of fairness/balance (if we want one group of road users to do one thing perhaps we could call for this) and hopefully the roads will be better for all


posted by FATBEGGARONABIKE [733 posts]
4th March 2012 - 9:57


Where I live I see numerous kids on bikes with phone held to their ear... not in the same danger league as car driving though.

I find it pretty hard to believe that cannabis slows reaction times by 21 per cent!!!
Yet alcohol is only at 15 per cent when over the legal limit!!!
I have read several drug driving test reports over the years & ALL of them suggested alcohol is significantly worse than cannabis Nerd

No problem believing that convasation is worse than both though slows reaction times by 26.5 per cent,hands-free mobile phone conversation could essentialy be normal conversation with someone in the back or passenger seat!!!

Makes you think Eh?

Paulo's picture

posted by Paulo [112 posts]
4th March 2012 - 16:27


On The Phone

posted by darren13366 [63 posts]
5th March 2012 - 13:49