If you use a handheld mobile phone while driving, you’re breaking the law, but you’re far from alone. An RAC study found an estimated 11 million drivers have admitted to making or taking calls while at the wheel in the last 12 months.

The research also revealed the problem is worsening as attitudes towards handheld mobile use appear to be relaxing – the number of people who think it’s acceptable to take a quick call while on the road has doubled from 7% in 2014 to 14% in 2016.

Is talking on the phone really so different to conversing with a chatty passenger though? There’s evidence to suggest it is…

The problem with using a phone while driving

We all like to think we’re at least competent drivers, so making a quick call while at the wheel may not seem like much of a distraction.

The reality though is that using a mobile device while driving, whether hand-held or hands-free, creates a significant enough distraction to make you four times as likely to be involved in a crash that causes injury.

To put the dangers into some perspective, the effect of talking on a phone while driving can be more acute than drink driving in some cases.

According to Brake, the road safety charity, driver reaction times are 30% slower when using a phone than when driving with a blood alcohol level of 80mg per 100ml of blood (the current legal limit in England and Wales), and nearly 50% slower than driving under normal conditions.

The same risk isn’t apparent when talking to another passenger though, as a 2008 study from the New Zealand Transport Agency revealed that while drivers who used their phone showed signs of poor speed control and slower reaction times, drivers with chatty passengers perform nearly as safely as drivers with silent passengers.
It’s believed this difference is at least in part because conversations with someone in the car tend to come to a natural pause when approaching hazards, as passengers can see when the driver needs to concentrate.

And it’s no longer just a case of phone calls and texts offering a major distraction, the RAC research also found the number of drivers who admitted to posting on social media while driving went up from 7% to 19% between 2014 and 2016, while 14% of motorists admitted to taking photographs or videos on their phone while driving.

The government has responded by announcing it will impose tougher punishments on anyone caught using a device while driving, but will it be enough?

Tougher penalties for mobile users

As of 2017, any driver caught using a hand held mobile device when driving, whether texting, tweeting, or taking pictures, will be hit with a £200 fine and six penalty points on their licence – that’s double the current £100 fine and three penalty points.

This tougher penalty means that drivers who have recently passed their test could have their licences revoked and have to retake their driving test before they can legally get back behind the wheel.

Any drivers who get caught a second time could see themselves on the end of a £1,000 fine and six-month driving ban.

The new legislation will come into force during the first half of next year, but despite being a bigger deterrent, the findings from the RAC report suggest it’s going to take a massive change in culture and attitudes to fully rid the roads of this potentially fatal problem.

Challenging a mobile phone offence

If you have been accused of using a mobile telephone whilst driving, you may be thinking of just pleading guilty and taking the points. However, this is not your only option. There are several reasons why the evidence from the police may not be good enough for a conviction. Here are two examples:

1.    What is the legislation that you have breached?

Can the police prove that you were ‘using’ the phone? The police officer that witnessed you committing the offence will have provided a witness statement, which should be included in the ‘summons pack’ you receive with your court summons. Often, the statement will describe how the officer saw you holding a phone to your right ear and how you appeared to be talking into it. Many cases can be defended on this point alone: that ‘holding’ a phone is not the same as ‘using’ it.

2.    What is the evidence against you?

Can the police prove that the phone was ‘hand held’ at the time of the offence? If a call was being made, but via a Bluetooth headset or hands-free kit for instance, then technically you would not be guilty of committing an offence. The police may not even be able to prove that you were holding a phone – it could be argued that you were holding an iPod, dictation machine, Bluetooth earpiece, etc.

The most important thing to remember when facing a driving with a mobile phone charge is that pleading guilty is not always the only option.

What do you think – will the tougher penalties make you think twice before taking a call or texting while driving? Let us know in the comments section.