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Level of fixed penalty notices issued for the offence in 2015 is a tenth of what it was a decade ago

The RAC says that a sharp fall in the number of drivers fined for illegally using handheld mobile phones at the wheel plummeted reflects police resources being stretched to breaking point and law-breaking drivers believing they won’t be caught.

According to Home Office data published this week, some 16,861 fixed penalty notices (FPNs) were issued by police forces in England and Wales last year to motorists guilty of the offence.

That’s barely a tenth of the 166,800 handed out for the offence in 2006 – before use of smartphones and social media sites took off.

It’s also a 12.9 per cent drop on the 29,749 FPNs issued in 2014, following a decade in which the number of fines for the offence have been steadily falling year-on-year.

FPNs issued for a number of other motoring offences have also declined significantly during the period, particularly since then secretary of state for transport Philip Hammond declared an end to the so-called ‘War on the Motorist’ in 2010.

Coupled with police funding being slashed as a result of austerity measures introduced under former chancellor George Osborne, that has led to police forces across the country being under-resourced, with roads policing one of the areas to suffer.

The force that issued the most fines last year for the offence was the Metropolitan Police, with 6,416 FPNs issued to motorists who had been using a handheld phone at the wheel. Thames Valley Police, with 1,314, was the only other force to make it into four figures.

At the other end of the scale, officers in Durham fined only 46 offenders and their colleagues in Cleveland issued the lowest number of FPNs of all – just 26, or one a fortnight.

RAC road safety spokesman, Pete Williams, said that the figures showed that the number of FPNs issued for illegal handheld phone use “has fallen off a cliff.”

He went on: “The figures lay bare the scale of the handheld mobile phone epidemic that has been allowed to sweep across the country largely unchallenged.

“The simple truth is the problem of illegal handheld phone use at the wheel is undeniably getting worse, with fewer and fewer people being caught.

“Attitudes are clearly relaxing as a result of drivers no longer fearing punishment,” he said.

According to RAC research published last month, there has been a rise in the numbers of drivers who view using a handheld mobile phone to make a voice call or check social media.

> One in three admit to driving with handheld phone

Last month it was revelaed that from next year, fines for illegal mobile phone use would double to £200 and penalty points for the offence from three to six, the RAC believes this won’t address the problem.

“We fear this alone will not be enough to bring about a change in the attitude of those motorists who continue to believe it is acceptable to use a handheld phone while driving,” explained Williams.

“Law-abiding motorists who regularly see others using a handheld phone at the wheel, putting lives at risk, want to know that the law is being enforced.

“With a 27 per cent decline in full-time roads policing officers since 2010 and little chance of an increase in numbers in the near future, we need to see all police forces giving greater priority to the enforcement of this offence.

“And better enforcement needs to be backed up by more driver education about the true dangers of handheld mobile phone use, and a heavyweight road safety campaign akin to that which has been successful in making drink-driving socially unacceptable,” he added.

When the increased fines were announced last month, Jayne Willetts from the Police Federation of England and Wales, commented: "Unfortunately, with fewer officers out on the roads, more of these offences are going undetected."

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.