Today marks the beginning of a two-week national police enforcement campaign against illegal mobile phone use.

It highlights the risks drivers face – and pose to others – when they use a mobile phone illegally while at the wheel.

The current penalty of a £200 fine with six penalty points was introduced in 2017.

A clear and obvious danger

Numerous studies have found that phone use behind the wheel remains commonplace. At the same time it remains one of the biggest road safety concerns of drivers themselves. Is the temptation too strong?

A poll by the RAC last year found that 79% of drivers support the use of camera technology to catch those guilty.

The same report found that younger drivers are still more likely to do so (42%). However, those in the 25 to 44 age group are also statistically more likely to break the law in this way (32%).

Get the message (before you get behind the wheel)

GEM Motoring Assist’s chief executive Neil Worth says it’s “mentally distracting”. He added: “If you allow yourself to take part in a conversation or try to read and respond to data on your phone, you’re dramatically reducing your ability to focus on safe driving.

“Please think about the consequences of picking up a phone. You wouldn’t do it with a police officer watching and you wouldn’t do it on your driving test. The risk doesn’t just disappear because the roads are quieter and there are fewer vehicles are on the road.

Case Proven

In 2020, a Transport Select Committee report recommended the government ban all phone use behind the wheel. It would send a clear message and make it much easier to enforce.

A study by Dr Graham Hole (University of Sussex) and Dr Gemma Briggs (Open University) in 2020 demonstrated and equal danger, whether driving using a hands-free or hand-held mobile phone. It added to a large body of research built up over a decade.

A conversation requires the driver to use their visual imagination, creating competition for the brain’s processing capacity. Distracted drivers suffered from ‘visual tunnelling.’ They tend to focus their eyes on a small central region directly ahead of them. This leads them to miss hazards in their peripheral vision.

Expert Explanation

Dr Graham Hole, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sussex, said:

“A popular misconception is that using a mobile phone while driving is safe as long as the driver uses a hands-free phone. Our research shows drivers are distracted by phone conversations, regardless of whether they are hand-held or hands-free. Because their attention is focused on the conversation, a driver will try to cope by reducing the mental demands of the driving. They do this by looking around less so they are less likely to spot emerging hazards, like pedestrians, especially in their peripheral vision. They also over-rely on their expectations about what is likely to happen next. This causes problems when something unexpected happens.”

Dr Gemma Briggs, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the Open University said:

“A driver using a phone – hand-held or hands-free – is four times more likely to be involved in a collision. Distracted drivers can be unaware of what their eyes are looking at. They fail to see a hazard, even when looking directly at it. The current mobile phone laws are outdated and not fit for purpose. They also, by implication, suggest that hands-free phone use is a safe alternative to hand-held use despite compelling research evidence, including our own, which disputes this. As such, the law around what constitutes ‘phone use’ and how it negatively impacts on a driver’s attention needs clarification.”

Look and learn

GEM has produced a short ‘Kill the Conversation’ video that sets out details of the offence, the risks and the penalties.