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RAC Report on Motoring 2011 finds "staggering" growth in use of smartphones while driving

One in four consider use of phone at wheel it to be more serious than drink-driving

The RAC says that usage of smartphones at the wheel has hit “staggering new levels” among younger drivers, and that one in four motorists now consider it to be a more serious issue than drink driving and say that existing laws are ineffective in combating the problem. The findings are from the organisation’s latest annual Report on Motoring, published today.

Among motorists aged 18-24, almost half admit using their mobile phone while driving, and among specific apps that they agreed took their attention away from the road were music (24 per cent), email (23 per cent) and mapping services such as Google Maps (22 per cent).

One in six use BlackBerry Messenger at the wheel, with a similar proportion confessing to using Twitter at the wheel, and 8 per cent even play games on their phones when they should be concentrating on the road. Texting at the wheel is also on the rise, up to 21 per cent from 14 per cent last year.

While self-reported usage of phones while driving was found to be fairly growing across all age groups, the RAC said that the problem was particularly acute among younger drivers, who have grown up with technology as an ever-present feature of their lives.

Although 82 per cent of motorists agree with the statement that it is dangerous to use a mobile phone while they are driving, 14 per cent say that they feel “confident and safe” doing just that.

Just one in ten drivers believe that existing laws are adequately tackling the problem, while a large majority – 69 per cent – would like to see a “three strikes and you’re out” rule introduced that would see motorists receive a year’s ban if they were caught using their phone three times while at the wheel. More than half of respondents – 53 per cent – wanted more points to be put on the driving licence of those caught.

RAC Motoring Strategist, Adrian Tink commented: “Drivers using handheld mobile phones is still an all too common sight, and one that appears to be getting worse. The popularity of smartphones and apps, especially among younger drivers who’ve grown up with the technology, risks creating a new generation of drivers who believe using a phone behind the wheel is acceptable. This has to change.

“At 70mph your car travels around the length of 6 double decker buses every 2 seconds – if someone told you to close your eyes at that speed for that length of time you’d think they were crazy – yet people are doing virtually the same thing by taking their eyes of the road to look at phones.

“The fact that a quarter of motorists now believe this issue is on a par with drink-driving proves that awareness is growing, but it still lacks the taboo of drink-driving.

“Sustained education and public awareness campaigns have turned drink-driving into a socially unacceptable offence – we need to do the same for using handheld mobile phones behind the wheel. RAC is calling for social media companies to take the lead on this, working with Government and road safety campaigners to educate the public before it’s too late. 80% of motorists want better education on this issue. It needs to happen now.”

Away from mobile phone usage, the report paints a bleak picture for motorists, with journalist and TV presenter Quentin Wilson claiming in the foreword that far from the so-called War on the Motorist being over, as the coalition government asserted after it was formed last year, “the sense of abandonment felt by UK motorists has never been as acute as it is today.”

That’s chiefly because of the spiralling cost of motoring, with fuel and insurance premiums both on the rise, and the report highlights that it is drivers in rural areas, where public transport may be limited if it is available at all, who are having to bite the bullet and accept higher costs.

Wilson says that “for urban motorists, getting to the shops, commuting to work, and doing the school run are all becoming frighteningly expensive. This is forcing people to make unpalatable personal sacrifices,” which hardly makes it sound as though alternative, healthier and cheaper forms of transport such as cycling are viewed as a tempting alternative.

Nevertheless, nearly seven in ten drivers – 68 per cent – in urban areas said that they were walking or cycling more, falling to 46 per cent of people in suburbs and 44 per cent in rural areas.

Fewer than half of the drivers surveyed believe that they could use their car less than they are at the moment, however, illustrating the extent to which many are dependent on their cars, with 43 per cent in urban areas, 34 per cent in the suburbs and21 per cent in rural locations agreeing.

The RAC has issued eight “calls to action” as a result of its research, including investment in areas that can provide an alternative to using the car such as the development of safe cycle routes, as well as better maintenance of the road network including pothole repair.

It has also called on the government as well as companies operating within social media to educate drivers about the dangers of using their phones while driving and other distractions, and that the government also needs to “rigorously enforce” existing laws regarding use of phones at the wheel.

Simon has been news editor at 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.

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