Using a mobile at the wheel must become as unacceptable as drink-driving

Mobile phone at the wheel: Mark Nicholls welcomes moves to increase penalties.

Mobile phone at the wheel: Mark Nicholls welcomes moves to increase penalties. - Credit: PA

It was only a few days ago that I watched as a young driver pulled out of a junction, manoeuvred the wheel with one hand and then quickly changed gear.

The other hand was holding a mobile phone closely to his ear. At no point did he seem particularly engaged with what was happening around him; where other vehicles were, if there was a cyclist on the road or pedestrians waiting to cross nearby.

It is now a common sight to overtake someone on a motorway or see them coming towards us on a trunk road with the phone propped against the steering wheel as they text.

Sadly – and in some cases tragically – it is an all-too-familiar scene, yet many drivers remain convinced that they are doing nothing wrong. A recent survey by the RAC found that the problem is increasing, with 31pc of motorists questioned admitting they used a handheld phone behind the wheel compared with 8pc in 2014.

The number of drivers who said they sent a message or posted on social media rose from 7pc to 19pc and 14pc of motorists admitted they had taken a photograph or video while driving.

That's why the move to increase fines from £100 to £200 and see drivers given six points on their licence rather than three and a £200 has to be a welcome step.

If drivers are caught twice and accrue 12 points they will automatically appear in court and face a fine of £1,000 and a driving ban of at least six months.

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An obvious question will be: is six points on a licence and a £200 spot fine enough? It may be, but only if the law is enforced, and seen to be enforced.

The RAC points to a 27pc fall in full-time dedicated roads policing officers in England and Wales over the last few years as a factor that has led drivers to believe they have less chance of being caught, though in Norfolk and Suffolk plain-clothed police officers are now being deployed to snare mobile phone offenders.

This is an indication of how seriously police in the region view this crime.

Let us hope they are soon catching unsuspecting offenders, though officers admit that seeing someone using a phone and successfully prosecuting are two different matters.

'We have to be certain that someone is using their mobile phone,' said Sgt Matt Steward, from Norfolk and Suffolk Roads Policing Unit.

'Their hand goes down when they see us and you question what you think you've seen.'

The Department for Transport suggests a disproportionate number of those caught were young or new drivers, or both, and this is an area I believe the change in punishments will have an impact.

New drivers also risk having their licences revoked after the first offence and to regain it they will have to reapply for a provisional licence and will only be allowed to drive as a learner until they pass further theory and practical tests.

That will hurt as it is not that easy to pass a driving test.

Again, the new legislation is only valid if it is enforced and seen to be enforced. This is why the EDP decision to name and shame drivers caught using mobiles at the wheel, as part of the Hands Off Your Mobile campaign, will be an integral part of this fight in Norfolk and Suffolk.

However, the figures do not look good in terms of prosecutions and convictions; Ministry of Justice data for the past 10 years show the number of prosecutions have halved since 2010, with 17,586 motorists charged in 2015 compared with 35,255 in 2010.

The biggest problem is public attitude – drivers will only change their behaviour when magistrates act and the offence is one that becomes socially unacceptable, which at present it is not seen as such.

The AA has called for a national advertising campaign akin to those in the 1980s on drink-driving. Quite right, as those who use mobiles and drive are no different to drunk drivers as their concentration is impaired and they may have an accident with very serious consequences. The message has to be blunt – stop using your mobile at the wheel, otherwise you become as big a menace on the highway as a drunk-driver.

Sadly, there have been people killed by drivers using their mobile at the wheel. The law intervenes here with drivers charged with more serious offences – such as causing death by dangerous driving – and can see them sent to jail for several years. But this basic increase in fines will only be enough to discourage these people when they change their mind set.

Rather than see it as them risking a fine of £200 and penalty points, they must begin to perceive their behaviour as actually risking someone else's life.