The RAC is urging the government to reinstate funding for road safety campaigns against the background of sharp rises in the proportion of young motorists drug-driving and drivers illegally using smartphones at the wheel. In its 24th annual Report on Motoring, the RAC also highlights that many motorists are increasingly switching to foot or bicycle for some journeys due to spiralling fuel costs, and that 30 per cent of motorists would like to see the government make spending on better facilities for cyclists a priority.
According to the report, the proportion of motorists aged 17 to 24 who admit driving after taking drugs has nearly doubled from 5 per cent to 9 per cent during the last 12 months, while 13 per cent of survey respondents in that age group have either driven a car when they were under the influence of drugs, or were a passenger in a vehicle in which the driver had taken drugs.
Meanwhile, the proportion of 25-44-year-olds who use a smartphone at the wheel to check social networks and email or browse the web has risen by 50 per cent, says the RAC, which is calling on the government to fund road safety campaigns to highlight the dangers of driving while under the influence of drugs, or illegally using a mobile phone at the wheel.
Whether the government will respond by taking action is open to question. According to the RAC, in the last two years, the government has launched just one high-profile road safety campaign, and spending on such initiatives by the Department for Transport plummeted from £18.6 million in 2009/10 to only £2.34 million in 2010/11.
It’s no coincidence that the second of those years is the one in which the coalition government came to power, with former Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond promising an end to the “war on the motorist” and immediately ordering a 60 per cent cut in the Road Safety Grant.
Motorists themselves are more concerned about the behaviour of other drivers than ever before. The proportions of those expressing concern about drink or drug-driving, speeding, using mobile phones, breaking traffic laws, or being rude to others have all risen compared to 12 months ago, as has the percentage who are concerned about road traffic incidents.
Nearly half of all drivers surveyed – 44 per cent – say they feel less safe on the roads now than they have ever done before; just half that proportion, 22 per cent, say that they feel safer.
There is a strong feeling that more should be done to enforce the law and that penalties for offenders should be stiffer. Six in ten motorists believe that there are not enough police officers enforcing traffic legislation, for example, and there is widespread belief that penalties are currently not tough enough, and not just for drink or drug-driving – some 42 per cent of drivers would like to see some kind of ban from driving introduced for those caught illegally using a mobile phone while driving.
As for that 30 per cent of drivers who want money spent on better provision for cyclists, what the report doesn’t say is why they would like to see that happen; for some, it could simply be a means of getting cyclists off the road and there’s also the issue that the type of infrastructure that cycle campaigners call for, and that which motorists who don’t cycle think cyclists should have, are often very different things.
In his foreword to the report, ex-Formula 1 driver Eddie Irvine said: “With more and more cars on the road, safety is now paramount in the minds of drivers. It’s clear in this year’s Report that what concerns drivers the most is the behaviour of their fellow motorists, and especially the potential for dangerous driving that puts them at risk.
“You only have to venture out onto the roads for a brief period to see that mobile phone usage is all too common behind the wheel. The rise of smartphones, with the ability to email, use apps and check social media is contributing heavily to that.
“While it’s far harder to spot someone driving under the influence of drugs, that doesn’t mean the issue can be ignored. A doubling of the number of the new generation of motorists drug-driving is highly alarming – and yet still we don’t have a viable at the roadside testing procedure in place for this.
“There is a wider point about road safety that needs to be made as well – the roads today bear no resemblance to those ten or even five years ago. The combination of more cars and the speed and carelessness of some drivers is alarming. Some people are disregarding the fundamental principles of driving and putting themselves and other cars around them at risk,” he added.
The report also highlighted the extent to which motorists are cutting out non-essential journeys and switching to other modes of transport such as cycling or walking in the face of soaring fuel costs and other pressures on household finances, and warned that that motorists in rural areas found it much more difficult than those living in towns and cities to find alternatives to the car.
The RAC said that the continued rise in the cost of motoring also risked having a societal impact, with a quarter of respondents saying that they would have to cut down on family commitments if costs continued to escalate, and nearly one in three saying they would have to stop using their car for socialising, which the organisation says could lead to social isolation.
David Bizley, RAC technical drector, said of the report’s findings: “Government cuts have meant an extremely large drop in spending on road safety campaigns in the past two years, but the 2012 Report highlights the damaging effect this is having.
“The growth of the new breed of motoring offences, like drug-driving and social networking behind the wheel, is highly concerning. RAC urges Government to reintroduce high profile campaigns on these issues as soon as possible.”
Referring to the increase in drug-driving and motorists using hand-held mobile phones at the wheel, he commented: “These offences don’t yet have the same social taboo that drink-driving now holds, which thanks to years of concerted campaigns has continued to decrease as a problem.
“We welcome recent announcements that Government will tighten enforcement around drug-driving, but the planned changes focus too much on penalties rather than prevention. Government funding should be directed to educating people through road safety campaigns to deter them from driving dangerously and putting lives at risk.”
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.