Road safety: driving while using a mobile phone Contents

3The risks of using a mobile phone

6.Although the offence is framed around the use of a hand-held device, research shows that using any mobile phone or other device while driving—whether hand-held or not—is a distraction that is detrimental to a driver’s ability to drive safely. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has said that drivers who use a mobile phone:

We received a large number of submissions raising concerns about the dangers and extent of mobile phone use.9

7.There are many activities that distract drivers to a greater or lesser extent. Using a radio involves some distraction, as does talking to a passenger. We were told that there is a ‘hierarchy of distractions’, and that the important thing is how much cognitive complexity an activity involves.10 Dr Gemma Briggs told us that the interactivity of using a phone—whether hand-held or hands-free, a distinction we look at in more detail below—was a significant issue, as it requires drivers to respond.11 Dr Shaun Helman told us that experienced drivers, who normally have much better hazard perception skills than novices, revert to the level of novices when they are distracted by using a mobile phone. He said: “That is a big problem because novices are a high-risk group […] You are effectively deskilling drivers if you allow them to talk on the phone”.12 We also heard that using a mobile phone can affect visual perception to the extent that a driver can have their eyes on the road and look directly at a hazard yet fail to see it, because they do not have the cognitive resources available to do so.13

8.Dr Gemma Briggs and Dr Graham Hole said the risks of using a mobile phone hands-free were just the same as for hand-held use;14 reducing a driver’s ability to detect hazards and the speed with which they react to them. A driver using a phone—hand-held or hands-free—is four times more likely to be involved in a collision. Dr Briggs told us that the risks of using a mobile phone while driving resulted from the cognitive distraction involved in using the device, and not from having to use a hand to hold the device.

9.Putting the risks of driving while using a mobile phone in context, Dr Shaun Helman told us: “Being at the UK legal limit for alcohol blood level is essentially the same amount of distraction, if not slightly less, than having a hands-free call.”15 It is important to note that if somebody is impaired with alcohol that is a persistent state for the whole journey, while a driver using a mobile phone is only impaired while they are using their phone—although Dr Gemma Briggs told us that for around five minutes after a driver has ended a phone conversation, whether hand-held or hands-free, they are still at significantly increased risk of being involved in a collision.16

10.While collisions where a driver was using a mobile phone account for less than half a per cent of all road traffic collisions, in 2017 almost 3% of fatalities resulting from road traffic collisions involved a driver using a mobile phone. In 2017 43 people were killed and a further 135 were seriously injured in road traffic collisions where using a mobile phone was a contributory factor.17 Casualties in reported collisions where the driver using a mobile phone was a contributory factor have increased over the past decade, as shown below.

Table 1: Casualties in reported accidents where the driver using a mobile phone was a contributory factor, 2009–17

Killed

Seriously injured

Slightly injured

All casualties

2009

15

68

426

509

2010

28

74

449

551

2011

23

74

474

517

2012

17

79

452

528

2013

26

95

539

660

2014

24

111

634

769

2015

22

99

585

706

2016

35

137

608

780

2017

43

135

595

773

Source: Department for Transport, RAS50007: Contributory factors: Casualties in reported accidents by severity, Great Britain, September 2018 (and previous editions)

The numbers above should be considered in the context of increases in the number of licensed vehicles and ownership of mobile phones. Since the offence of driving while using a mobile phone was created in 2003, the number of licensed vehicles has increased from just over 31 million to just under 38 million (an 18% increase).18 Over the same period the number of households which own a mobile phone has increased from 76% to 95%.19

11.In a 2017 survey more than 1% of drivers were observed using a hand-held mobile phone while driving,20 a reduction on the numbers seen in 2014.21 Other evidence suggests that use of phones at the wheel is on the rise; the RAC told us that their 2018 survey of motorists showed that the illegal use of phones at the wheel has increased since 2017.22 The RAC’s survey found that 25% of drivers admitted to making calls on their mobile phone while driving, and 16% said they used their phone to text, email or post on social media.23 Both of these figures have increased since 2017. What these surveys show is that using a mobile phone while driving—which can lead to fatal and serious consequences—is a persistent problem and is potentially getting worse.

12.The Department for Transport has said that it is carrying out an analysis of existing data to gain a “deeper understanding of the why, how and in what contexts mobile phones are used whilst driving”.24 The DfT has said that it plans to publish the outcome of this work over the summer, and that the results will help the Government decide what more needs to be done to stop people using a mobile phone while driving.

13.Using a mobile phone or other device while driving impairs a person’s ability to drive safely and makes a road traffic collision more likely. This is true whether a device is hand-held or being used hands-free. It is a tragedy—and one which is entirely avoidable—that 43 people were killed and a further 135 were seriously injured in 2017 in road traffic collisions where a driver using a mobile phone was a contributory factor in the crash. We welcome the Government’s plans to publish an analysis of mobile phone use while driving, in order to help it decide what more needs to be done to tackle this activity. We hope that the evidence we have taken and the recommendations we make in this Report will be useful to the Government as it decides what further action is necessary.


8 The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, Road Safety Factsheet: Mobile Phones and Driving Factsheet, July 2018

9 Mark Ellerington (RSA0001), P Whitfield Consulting (RSA0013), Mr Justin Shaw (RSA0016), RAC Motoring Services (RSA0023), Dr Helen Wells (RSA0032) para 3.4, Warwickshire Police and Crime Commissioner (RSA0053) para 1.5, SmartDrive Systems Ltd (RSA0056), Miss Sarah Vaughan (RSA0060) para 3.3.5, Dr Gemma Briggs and Dr Graham Hole (RSA0062), Road Haulage Association (RSA0068) paras 37 and 42, The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RSA0080), Direct Line Group (RSA0082) para 17, ITS United Kingdom (RSA0102) para 3.6

10 Q6

14 Dr Gemma Briggs and Dr Graham Hole (RSA0062)

18 Department for Transport, Vehicle licensing statistics: 2017, Table VEH0102 (TSGB0903), Licensed vehicles at the end of the year by body type, Great Britain from 1994, April 2018

20 Department for Transport, Seatbelt and mobile phone use surveys: Great Britain, 2017, 7 February 2019. Observations were made at both stationary and moving traffic sites, and a record was taken of the number of drivers using a hand-held mobile phone.

21 Department for Transport, Seat belt and mobile phone use surveys: England and Scotland, 2014, 25 February 2015

22 RAC Motoring Services (RSA0023)

24 Department for Transport, The Road Safety Statement 2019: A Lifetime of Road Safety, 19 July 2019, para 2.60




Published: 13 August 2019