Driving while talking on a hand-held mobile must be one of the most widely flouted laws. Next week, motorists caught in the act will face stiffer penalties, but why is the message proving so hard to get through?
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
When the law banning driving while using a hand-held phone was introduced it was two hours before the first motorist fell foul of it. The only surprise for most people was that it took so long.
The sight of drivers with a mobile handset jammed between jaw and shoulder is still common. Few seem to care they're doing anything wrong and obviously don't think there's much chance of getting caught.
After it became illegal in December 2003, with offenders facing a £30 fine, 90% of drivers stopped. But compliance has slipped markedly.
Today, up to 10 million motorists - almost a quarter of all UK drivers - admit to still doing it, says to the government. Three million say they text while driving. The police are now getting tough. From next Tuesday motorists who are caught will pay a £60 fine and get three points on their licence.
Why? Because talking on a mobile phone while driving is worse than drink-driving and those who do it are four times more likely to have an accident, according to research.
"The problem with mobiles is not vehicular control and only having one hand on the wheel, but rather it is taking away attention from what is happening outside the car," says Dr Graham Hole, author of The Psychology of Driving.
So why is the potential for harm not getting through? Why are millions still doing it and how do you stop them?
Part of the problem is people are notoriously over-optimistic about their driving ability. While most accept driving after a few drinks impairs judgement and reaction time, a lot still don't think using a hand-held mobile is risky.
Some drivers argue it's no more of a distraction than talking to a passenger, but experts disagree, suggesting that even hands-free kits - which are legal - are dangerous.
Do you ever use your mobile hand-set while driving?
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
"The danger with a conversation on a mobile is that it psychologically removes you from the vehicle," says Cris Burgess, an expert on driving behaviour and the psychology of rule breaking.
"In your head you take yourself from the car and put yourself next to the person you are talking to. It's very different from talking to a passenger in the vehicle with you. They are aware of the pressures on you at any given moment.
"If you're approaching a tricky road junction, they might stop talking until you have safely negotiated it. Someone on the other end of a phone doesn't do that."
It's this abstract quality to the argument that hinders getting the message across, say experts. With drink-driving the issue is more concrete: knock back five pints and you won't be able to walk straight, let alone drive.
It's a more grey area when you drink less, but then most people police themselves because drink-driving has become morally wrong and is socially unacceptable. That's not the case with mobile phones, which is another problem for safety campaigners.
"If there's no internal pressure to abide by a law then external pressure is less likely to work," says Mr Burgess. "People are far more likely to police themselves if they think something is morally wrong."
Using mobile 'worse than drink-driving'
And often it comes down to putting themselves or others at risk just to say something as banal as they are on their way home for tea.
Linda Hudd's 11-year-old daughter Rebekka was killed when a car mounted a pavement and hit her. The driver was using a mobile phone at the time to call his girlfriend. He was convicted, fined £250 and received six points on his licence.
"He had just left his girlfriend. I don't know what was so important that he had to call her just a few minutes later, but I know it wasn't as important as my daughter's life," she says.
"Before mobiles were invented we managed to drive from one place to another without making phone calls. Now people are putting lives at risk just to tell someone what they want for dinner."
When humans change their behaviour they go through certain psychological stages. On this issue a lot of people are stuck in the "contemplative stage". Basically, they accept it can affect concentration but labour under the illusion they can deal with the consequences.
So how do you move people from contemplating to the "action stage" where they change their behaviour?
2003 - 1,437
2004 - 68,813
2005 - 123,195
2006 - 131,857
"It has to be a combination of the carrot and stick," says Mr Burgess. "You need to educate people to get them to personally police themselves. Also, the police need a clear policy so there is an increased sense that it is illegal, you will get caught and will be punished."
Police have been criticised for not enforcing the law on driving and using mobiles. Last year 131,857 drivers were caught on British roads and fined. However, if 10 million admit to still doing it, that means just over 1% of offenders are being caught and fined.
Traffic police and the government say they are getting tough with the new measures but campaigners are still sceptical.
"The changes are welcome but not enough," says a spokeswoman for road safety charity Brake. "We want a £1,000 fine and six points put on people's licence. They are serious deterrents.
"People also need to be educated, a lot are really ignorant about the dangers."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
The problem isn't legislation, it's enforcement. A yellow box on a stick can't catch people on the phone. We already had an offence for this - driving without due care and attention - but it needs a traffic policeman to apply it and that costs more. Cost counts for more than anything these days, even the law. Another question, when was the last time anyone was prosecuted for lighting a cigarette in a car? At least a mobile phone isn't actually on fire.
Good - at long last this law might be enforced properly. And as the research clearly shows that hands-free units are nearly as dangerous, can they be included please? Talking to someone who is not in the car and cannot see the traffic situation will always be more distracting than chatting to a passenger in the car.
John Bratby, Portsmouth
It's not only people who drive while using their mobiles that are dangerous. I have come across people who have stopped their cars on narrow roads just to answer their phones. They seem totally oblivious (or uncaring) of the fact they are blocking off the stream of traffic and also are (usually) positioned so that it can be quite hazardous to overtake eg. on a bend. It's the lack of consideration for others that really gets to me.
A J, London
I have to drive for an hour each way to work every day and I have seen hundreds of people on the motorway or roads yakking away on their mobiles. Almost every day I see some fool driving or making dangerous movements around corners without proper care and almost every one of them is on a mobile. And when I beep at them, they look at me as if I am the one with the problem. I often ask myself why they value their conversation more than they value their lives. Maybe there should now be 'yakking and driving' public safety warnings to drum the message home.
Sadly a £250 fine for breaking the law and killing someone is hardly a deterrent. In the United States there is a criminal offence called vehicular manslaughter for people who kill with their cars. The same should be made law in the UK.
Liz Collins, London, UK
The employment of technology would greatly assist; if your cell phone just plain WON'T WORK when you switch on the vehicle ignition, the job's done. No need for driver 'education', an increase in either the penalties or number of traffic police.
Here, in the 21st century, it must be possible, so what's the downside ? No fixed fine revenue stream ? What's more important to this forlorn Government, preventing people from breaking the law/killing people, or making more money out of the motorist ?
Ian Hay, Peterborough, UK
It annoys me immensely the number of times I see my bus drivers using mobile phones and reading newspapers whilst driving the buses. I don't own a car so I have to use public transport but I'm placing my life into the hands of these inconsiderate fools.
I have used a Bluetooth hands free for a couple of years. I never place calls but do receive calls. The headset auto answers so I don't need to touch anything except the headset to end the call. But it is still distracting. Usually phone conversations are more demanding than those with a passenger in the car and I usually try to pull over somewhere. Probably all phone calls, including hands free should be banned.
It really boils down to selfishness on the part of the motorist, who see their needs a priority over the safety of other road users. I think it's the same internal process as speeding.
I once saw one woman on her mobile whilst smoking a cigarette!! How on earth she managed to drive without crashing was beyond me!
L M, Wolverhampton
If using a mobile while driving is worse than drink driving, then surely the punishment should be correspondingly more severe? So a £60 fine and 3 points, compared to up to six months in prison, a £5000 fine and minimum 12 month driving ban and 11 year endorsement, is still far too little. The gravity of the crime will never be appreciated until the punishment fits.
Andy, Twickenham, UK
I would like to see provision for companies to be prosecuted, too. The majority of mobile-yakking drivers I've seen are in charge of company vehicles ranging in size from saloon cars to skip lorries.
I've phoned the numbers on the sides of some of these vehicles to be met by a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders.
The companies can surely afford to supply drivers with hands-free sets (dangerous as well, I know) for work-related calls.
If their drivers are on company time and calling home, shouldn't they be having their pay docked as well as being fined and (if I had my way) put in the stocks?
Alex Keith, Preston, UK
If you kill someone on the road as a result of your own gross negligence, you should be charged with and convicted of manslaughter, which carries a sentence that could be as high as life imprisonment. Why people who kill accidentally with a motor vehicle should be treated more leniently than people who kill accidentally in any other way mystifies me.
Alex, Loughborough, UK
If everyone blew their horn, every time they spotted a driver using a mobile phone - they'd soon be shamed into giving up.
Mike, Clevedon UK
I ride a bike and there's nothing more dangerous (other than people who don't indicate) than someone on a phone. I see them at junctions and I know they haven't seen me, it's scary to pass just in case they suddenly decide to pull out.
Having said that, I have been known to speak on the phone while driving, I've learned by feeling venerable so often that it's just not worth it. I'm completely converted.
This annoys me a bit. I drive. And yes, i fully appreciate how one's concentration slips when using the phone.
However, i don't see it as any more dangerous than reaching for something in the glove compartment, changing the CD, tuning your favourite radio station, looking at a map, keeping an eye on the people in the back row of the car, waving at a friend on the pavement, applying make-up in the rear-view mirror, shaving, eating your breakfast...i could go on.
All of these things you can do entirely legally while driving.
James Manning, Southampton
James, it's called driving without due care and attention.
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