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

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 Direct.gov 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.

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.