A Deadly Distraction: Motorists Put Social Media Addiction Before Personal Safety


With rising congestion and an estimated 31.5 million cars on the road in the UK, drivers are spending an average 30 hours a year in traffic jams and turning to their mobile phones to keep themselves entertained. What’s surprising is that these same drivers believe they can use their mobile phone behind the wheel without compromising safety.

Woman on phoneImage Courtesy of Hugo Felix/Shutterstock.com

In a YouGov survey1 conducted by Simpson Millar, 89% of respondents recognised there is some form of penalty for using a mobile phone at the wheel but disappointingly, just under half (47%) know the current legal penalty. Despite the majority of people being aware that it is a motoring offence, it seems many would dispute the law: 18% of those who admit to having used social media at the wheel agree they can check or update social media and drive safely at the same time. A staggering 46% of them believe checking or updating social media at the wheel doesn’t cause a problem if you are stopped and stationary in traffic.

Almost a quarter of the nation (23%) have read or sent messages whilst at the wheel, with 65% of these convinced it does not cause a problem if you are stopped in a queue. 17% admit to making or receiving phone calls whilst driving without using a hands free kit, with 58% of these sharing the same view that it’s fine as long as you are stationary in traffic.

Unless the driver is parked safely or needs to call 999 or 112 in an emergency, then using a mobile phone, even when stuck in traffic, is against the law. If caught, the driver can receive three penalty points on their licence as well as a £100 fine.

Sat Nav on phoneWorryingly, 18-24 year olds are three times as likely as the rest of the population to believe there is no penalty for driving with a hand-held mobile (3% vs. 1%) and are the least likely to know the correct legal penalty (41%), despite being more likely to have taken their test more recently.

The need to ‘be connected’

There’s no doubt that social media has become ingrained in our daily lives; whether it’s to stay connected or a force of habit; it’s clear that a minority of the nation still feel the need to update or check their social platforms even when undertaking a demanding task such as driving. The Deloitte Mobile Consumer 2015 report shows that the UK are becomingly increasingly obsessed with their smartphones and reveals that over a third of adults claim to look at their phones more than 25 times a day.

While it might be a small margin, 8% of all adults admit to having used social media at the wheel, potentially putting themselves and others in danger. As Dr Shaun Helman, Head of Transport Psychology at TRL explains: “Anything that takes the mind or eyes of the driver off their most important task – driving – will increase the risk of a collision. Mobile devices are an important cause of distraction, given their prevalence and our relationship with them... Obviously some people, some of the time, value their social connectivity more than they value their safety and the safety of others. It is this perspective that should be targeted.”

When it comes to the main reason for taking the risk, 26% of those who have used social media at the wheel said they have done so to keep in touch with people.

Those aged 25-34 are also more than twice as likely to access and use various forms of social media on the road, compared to the national average (17% and 8% respectively). This supports recent statistics from Thames Valley Police, which reveals that those aged 25-34 were issued with more Fixed Penalty Notices for using their mobile phone at the wheel compared to any other age bracket between 2013 and 2015.2

Worryingly, this age bracket is also three times as likely to have watched or filmed a video while driving (7% compared with 2%) and nearly one in ten (9%) have posted on Facebook whilst at the wheel.

Twitter on the phoneBut whether tweeting, talking on the phone or reading a text message, they all result in the driver not giving their full attention to the road. “Any task that involves holding a device, looking at it, and interacting with it during driving will adversely affect driving performance”, points out Helman.“Typical effects are drifting out of lane, erratic speed control and being less aware of what is around you, resulting in poor anticipation of hazards. Recent research by TRL suggests that between 10-30% of road accidents in the EU are at least partly caused by distraction, and social media is an increasing risk in this area.”

Helman adds that speaking on a mobile phone can slow reaction times and impair judgement, to the same degree as having a blood alcohol level at the legal limit in England of (80mg/100ml). And as he explains: Interacting with social media is even more demanding than simply speaking.”

View our Infographic: Driven to Distraction for a closer look at how we use our phones while driving.

The big issue: mobile phone usage is under-reported

In Britain, mobile phones were a contributory factor in 21 fatal accidents and 84 serious accidents in 2014, according to the Department for Transport statistics. However, one of the biggest issues identified in the report is that mobile phone usage is often under-reported because drivers will not always disclose the information to police officers, particularly in non-fatal accidents.

Businessman gets into car with phoneImage Courtesy of Wrangler/Shutterstock.com

This is perhaps why in the 2015 All-Wales Anti-Mobile Phone While Driving Campaign which ran for just less than two weeks, 571 motorists were caught using their mobile phone behind the wheel, which was significantly less than the previous year, where officers detected 914 mobile phone offences.

It is believed that more officers are needed on the roads to help catch and convict drivers who continue to flout the law and it’s clearly a widespread issue. According to the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) motorists are more concerned about the distraction caused by technology and social media than they are about drink driving.

Tougher punishments proposed to improve road safety

In a bid to help improve road safety, the Government is currently undertaking a public consultation to consider harsher punishments for drivers who endanger lives by using a hand held mobile. If approved, fixed penalty fines will increase from £100 to £150. In addition, penalty points would rise from the current three to four and for larger vehicles such as HGVs this could increase from three to six points.

Worryingly, 18% of the nation admits they have read messages (including SMS, Instant Messaging etc.) when driving and 13% have actually sent messages. While it’s common knowledge that it’s only legal to use a hands-free phone when driving, 17% of the nation admits to having made or answered a call without using a hands-free kit. Over half (56%) state the main reason is because they were in a traffic jam; 53% to let someone know they were running late; 26% said they ‘needed to’ for their work and 20% admit it was simply to keep in touch with people.

The multitasking myth

It’s clear many people do not realise how much it can impact driver behaviour and safety, with 25% of all those who have made or received a call at the wheel (either with or without a hands free kit), saying they can have a phone conversation and drive safely at the same time. This dips as people get older but increases again for those aged 45-54 years old with 34% saying they believe they can do both at the same time without any implications.

The Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) points out that while a carphone conversation can influence driving; it can also change the nature of the conversation itself, in fact even decision making can be altered, which is something to bear in mind if you are prone to taking work calls while driving.

In a report produced by the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) and the Transport Research Laboratory it was found that trying to text or talk on a mobile phone at the wheel is the most dangerous type of distraction, and how it is possible that drivers overestimate their ability to multi-task.

Social Media

Driving is a complex task and as the report states ‘...when driving, a person must engage almost all of their mental faculties...’ The conclusion? Multi-tasking is a myth as the brain never actually focuses on two tasks at the same time. Actions such as texting, which is considered more dangerous than talking on the phone, is described as a high cognitive, visual and manual distraction.

The need for behavioural change

Helman explains that attitudes towards this epidemic need to change: “Drink-driving was socially acceptable in the 1960s and 1970s, but now it is seen as socially unacceptable by most people. The same could happen with distracted driving, although the development of new technologies may provide alternative solutions.

“A combination of education and enforcement is required to change drivers’ understanding of not only the risks involved, but the social unacceptability of being distracted at the wheel.”

It’s apparent that while the majority of drivers know it’s illegal, one of the key issues is tackling driver’s attitudes and ensuring they understand the true implications of performing two demanding tasks simultaneously. Just glancing away from the road for a few seconds to send a text or read a tweet can have fatal consequences.

The THINK! road safety campaign has produced a number of posters, along with a driving challenge game to highlight the real dangers. As they point out, drivers are four times more likely to crash when using a phone while driving. Just as the poster emphasises: ‘You can’t concentrate on the road and your mobile phone’ – so don’t take the risk.

THINK! Phone Safety
Image Courtesy of THINK! Road Safety

1 These figures are from research conducted by YouGov Plc on behalf of Simpson Millar. Total sample size was 2,039 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 23rd – 24th November 2015. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

2 Data on fixed Penalty Notices issued for using mobile phone whilst driving (between 2013 and 30th October 2015) provided by Thames Valley Police.

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