Road-safety campaigners say the government’s planned crackdown on driving offences, such as mobile phone use, will fail unless more police officers are put on the roads.
Campaigners are calling on the government to urgently reverse the decline in the number of police officers on UK roads.
A lack of funding has seen the numbers of road traffic officers slump since the start of the decade.
No improvement in compliance
Road-safety charity Brake says that a steep decline in the number of motorists who are being caught breaking the law is down to a lack of adequate police enforcement.
Official figures show that the number of people caught using their mobile phones at the wheel dropped by almost 50% between 2012 and 2016 from 177,900 to 93,606.
So, rather than representing improved compliance with the law among motorists, the fall is a direct result of fewer police officers being available to catch criminals.
Alice Bailey, communications and campaigns advisor for Brake, said: “It would be wonderful to think this drop is down to people getting the message about the dangers of mobile phone use, but sadly we don’t think this is the case.”
Crackdown at risk
She added: “A recent report called mobile use behind the wheel 'an epidemic', with our own studies showing more than half of drivers in some age groups admit they still use a phone while driving.
“As our police forces have faced major budget reductions, road traffic officers have too often been seen as a soft option for cuts: but they are an essential part of the service and save lives.”
Official figures show that the number of road traffic officers in England and Wales fell by 23% between 2010 and 2014 – the most recent year for which the relevant statistics are available.
Bailey said that plans announced recently by ministers for a crackdown on drivers who were caught using talking or texting on their phones would be ineffective if the lack of traffic police was not addressed.
‘More offences undetected’
“As the government brings in tougher new penalties for this crime, it must make sure it resources our police forces properly so this is a real deterrent,” she said.
Jayne Willetts from the Police Federation of England and Wales agreed that a crackdown on lawbreaking motorists would be unlikely to be effective given current policing levels.
“Police do actively target people using mobile phones when they are out on duty, but, unfortunately, with fewer officers out on the roads, more of these offences are going undetected,” she said.
“Having officers in marked cars out on the roads does act as a deterrent.
Budget cuts to blame
“However, due to the continued budget cuts over the past few years, there has been a very noticeable decline in the number of traffic police.”
The most recent figures from the police show that the number of drivers caught using their phones has fallen sharply every year since 2012.
The biggest decrease, of 25%, was seen in 2015, while this year the number of such crimes recorded is down by just under 17%.
This is despite research from motoring organisations which clearly shows that drivers admit to being far more likely to use their phones while in control of their vehicles than in the past.
Massive fall in detection rates
Out of the 43 police forces where statistics have been released, only two – Norfolk and West Yorkshire – recorded an increase in detection of mobile-phone use over the past four years.
In some parts of the country, detection rates have slumped dramatically.
In Dorset, for example, more than 3,500 drivers were caught on the phone in 2012: this year, the figure has fallen to 925, a drop of more than 75%.
Matters appear to be even worse in Lancashire, where the 2016 figure of 1,093 prosecutions represents an 81% fall on the figure from four years ago.