Distracted drivers using social media services like Facebook and Twitter are now a seen as a greater threat to road safety than drink-driving.
This is according to startling research published by the Institute of Advanced Motorists in its new Safety Culture Index report.
The IAM found that motorists now regard other drivers’ smartphone use – particularly for text messaging and checking social media accounts – as the biggest factor threatening their personal safety.
Checking or updating social media was cited by 69% of respondents as a “very serious threat” to their safety, with texting at 65%.
But just two-thirds of people (66%) said driving under the influence of alcohol was a similarly serious threat.
The other most significant concerns identified by the IAM included drug-driving (62% identified this as a serious threat), ignoring red lights (61%), speeding on residential streets (48%) and other drivers falling asleep at the wheel (45%).
Motorway speeding condoned
Speeding on motorways, however, was seen as less of a problem: only 24% of motorists said this kind of behaving presented a serious threat.
Sarah Sillars, IAM chief executive officer, said: “This report is a crucial barometer of what drivers are really thinking.
“It is all about seeing what issues and factors the public see as important in their lives, and using that information to influence their behaviour.
“Understanding the issues drivers see as important when it comes to road safety is essential for establishing how best to communicate with them and so in turn to achieve behaviour change, on both a local and national level.”
Rising levels of concern
The IAM’s report shows that concern over smartphone use is growing: 77% of the motorists questioned said that driver distraction was now a bigger problem than compared with three years ago.
Only the problem of traffic congestion had deteriorated more than this, with 80% saying jams and other hold-ups were now more common than in 2012.
Drink-driving, on the other hand, is not seen as an issue of increasing concern: 54% of motorists say this is about the same level of a problem as three years ago, while there is an even 23%-23% split among those who think the drink-driving situation has gotten worse and those who say it has improved.
Research carried out by the RAC for its annual Report on Motoring earlier this year found that most motorists do not support increased penalties for using a phone while driving.
Hands-free not risk-free
Instead, four in every five of those surveyed said they simply wanted to see traffic police enforce existing laws more effectively.
The RAC also found that a sizeable majority – about one in eight drivers – continued to think it was acceptable to take a short call on a hand-held phone while driving, while one in six (17%) believed it was OK to check texts or social media while in stationary traffic.
In fact, in both cases drivers could be given a fixed penalty notice with a £100 fine and three penalty points, with the possibility of more serious court action, a £1,000 fine and disqualification.
Even using a hands-free kit does not guarantee you will not be stopped by police.
Potential jail terms
Officers can intervene if they believe you are distracted and not in control of your vehicle.
A spokesman for the AA said: “There is worldwide evidence that using any sort of phone has a considerable effect on accident risk, so simply complying with the law does not make you a safe driver.
"While it's not a specific offence, using a hands-free phone can have a major bearing on whether or not you could be found guilty of careless or dangerous driving.
"These offences can carry substantial fines, disqualifications and even imprisonment."