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Smartphone use at wheel bigger danger than drink driving

A smartphoneIt is already illegal to use an ordinary mobile phone when driving but using a smartphone is even more dangerous, according to new research. 

As a nation, we're addicted to our mobile phones.

And increasingly that means smartphones which allow users to take videos and photos, look at maps, use apps and social networking sites, as well as call and text.

A study by Ofcom in August 2011 discovered that 27 per cent of adults owned a smartphone – and that they were making more calls and sending more texts than users of regular mobile phones.

Of these, 37 per cent claimed to be 'addicted' to their phones. 

Driven to distraction

The fact that it can be distracting to use an handheld mobile phone when driving has been acknowledged for a long time, and since December 2003 it has been illegal to do so.

If you're caught then you can expect to get an automatic fixed penalty notice of three penalty points on your licence and a £60 fine.

If your case goes to court this can increase to £1,000 fine and disqualification.

Despite this, the RAC Report on Motoring 2011 revealed that 8 per cent of all drivers and 24 per cent of young drivers aged 17 to 24 admitted to using a smartphone for email and social networking while driving. 

More dangerous than drink driving 

But new research by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) found that using a smartphone behind the wheel is more dangerous than drinking, smoking cannabis and texting when driving.

TRL devised a test drive in their DigiCar driving simulator which mimicked natural driving situations.

Twenty eight young male and female participants took part in the study, all of whom had previous experience of using Facebook via a smartphone.

The participants completed one test drive to familiarise themselves with the simulator, a drive without any phone use and then a drive when using Facebook on a smartphone.

They were asked to check and send messages on Facebook while driving and to update their status.

Researchers monitored their lane position, speed and reaction times, together with how looking at their smartphone affected the amount of time spent looking at the road. 

Reaction times  

The results of the experiment clearly showed that the drivers' ability was severely affected by using Facebook on their smartphone. 
When comparing these new results to previous studies the level of impairment on driving is greater than the effects of drinking, cannabis and texting. 

  • Using a smartphone, reaction times were slowed by around 38 per cent
  • Texting slows reaction times by 37.4 per cent
  • Hands-free mobile phone conversation slows reaction times by 26.5 per cent
  • Cannabis slows reaction times by 21 per cent
  • Alcohol at the legal limit slows reaction times by 12.5 per cent
  • Alcohol - above UK driving limit of 80mg/100 millilitres of blood but below 100mg per 100ml of blood) - slows reaction times by between 6 and 15 per cent

Raising Awareness

Road safety charity the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), which commissioned the research, is calling for the government to highlight the dangers of using smartphones at the wheel.

"More work needs to be done by government and social network providers to highlight the dangers of driving when using a smartphone," says chief executive Simon Best.

Attitudes to seatbelts and drink-driving have changed dramatically over the last thirty years and with the right information, halting smartphone use could become a similar success story. 

Staying Safe

Illegal mobile phone and smartphone use is unlikely to stop overnight, so it's important that motorists continue to take care of themselves.

So be aware that other road users might not have their full attention on their driving.

So give other drivers plenty of space, stay alert and keep your own phone switched off.

Maria McCarthy

Maria McCarthy

Maria McCarthy is a motoring and lifestyle journalist and author of The Girls' Car Handbook and The Girls' Guide to Losing your L Plates published by Simon and Schuster. She's also a regular on BBC Breakfast news, and local and national radio, commenting on motoring matters. Her pet motoring hates are potholes and high fuel prices.

View more from Maria

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