Many experts now believe that using a mobile phone whilst on the roads is just as dangerous as drink driving. Indeed, a UK study found that driver reaction time was 30% slower using a hands-free phone than driving with a blood alcohol level of 80mg per 100ml blood (the England and Wales legal limit).
Yet people are doing it more than ever according to a recent survey by the RAC. The motoring organisation found that a third of drivers admit to using a mobile phone while driving and 20% of drivers think it is acceptable to check social media while stuck in traffic, despite the fact that doing so is illegal. More worryingly, 14% take photos or videos while driving.
All the evidence shows that using a phone while driving increases your risk of being involved in an accident. Even using hands-free technology only slightly reduces the risk. This is due to the added cognitive workload involved when manipulating the phone, as well as communicating with another person. You're four times more likely to have an injury-related crash talking on your mobile whether using hands-free technology or not, and that risk remains higher than normal even up to ten minutes after you've completed the call.
The effects of using a phone while driving
Numerous studies have demonstrated that mobile phone usage can affect your driving in many ways, leading to a much higher risk of having an accident:
• Slower reaction times
• Poor speed control
• Difficulty controlling lane position
• Sharper braking
• Less attentive of signage and hazards
• More likely to tailgate
• Increased stress
So it should come as little surprise that more countries are taking action to ban the use of mobile phones while driving and increasing the penalties for those that flout the law.
Mobile phones and the law
Many countries now have a ban on mobile phone usage while driving. In the UK, The Road Vehicles (Construction And Use) (Amendment) (No.4) Regulations 2003 prohibits drivers from using a handheld mobile phone either while driving, or while supervising a learner driver. The regulation states that a mobile phone be any device that 'performs as communication function by transmitting and receiving data' to send written or oral messages, faxes, images or can access the Internet.
The only exemptions are two-way radios such as those used by taxi drivers or if you're making an emergency call and it's unsafe to stop. Otherwise you need to be safely parked. This means you cannot use your phone even if stopped at lights or in a traffic jam.
Furthermore, depending on police discretion, you can also face prosecution for using a hands-free device if seen to be driving poorly or without due care.
And the penalties can be severe. From 2007, there has been an automatic fixed penalty of £100, plus three points on your licence. Recently though, the Government transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, announced that this will double on both counts from sometime in early 2017. If a case goes to court, you could be disqualified from driving and receive a maximum fine of £1,000 (or £2,500 if you're driving public transport or a commercial vehicle). For new drivers, this could mean losing your licence if caught twice within two years of passing your driving test.
It's worth pointing out that employers can be prosecuted too, specifically for 'causing or permitting' workers to use a handheld phone while driving. Employers can also be held responsible if it is thought that using a hand-free phone while driving contributes to an accident. The message from the Health & Safety Executive is for employers to provide guidelines that instruct workers to allow their phones to take messages and respond only when safely parked.
A sign of things to come?
As the proliferation of mobile technology continues with Smartwatches and the Internet of Things, it's thought that the specifics of the law will have to change too. The plan to double the points and fines issued for being caught using a phone will now match the severity of the problem.
It was revealed that 500 accidents were caused by drivers using phones in 2014 - the highest number on record. That's despite the fact figures show that prosecution have fallen 50% in five years, prompting RAC head of external affairs, Pete Williams, to say:
'The goal for ministers and policy-makers is surely to make the use of mobile phones at the wheel as socially unacceptable as drink-driving.'
This can only be a good thing.