The message isn’t getting through: nearly half of drivers risk lives for a phone call

29 March 2012

Brake, the road safety charity
T: 01484 559909 E:

Nearly half of drivers are putting lives on the line by chatting on their phones at the wheel, according to a survey out today by road safety charity Brake and Direct Line. Almost half (48%) admit risking their own and others' safety by chatting on a phone while driving, of which two in three (65%) flout the law by using a hand-held phone, which has been illegal since 2003. A huge proportion (25%) talk on their phone at the wheel at least once a week, suggesting phone addiction is getting the better of many.

Brake and Direct Line are launching a campaign urging drivers to 'drive smart' by putting their phones out of sight and out of mind while driving. They are warning that using a hands-free or hand-held phone at the wheel can lengthen reaction times to a similar extent to drink driving [1], significantly increasing the risk of a devastating crash [2]. Hard-hitting billboard adverts by Brake and Blue Hive [3] will be displayed across London next week to get the message across that using a phone while driving can be fatal (previews available from Brake).

Unlike many other types of deadly risk-taking on roads, male and female drivers, young and old, are almost equally guilty of phone use at the wheel, showing widespread misunderstanding of the dangers. Men are slightly more likely to chat on a phone than women (50% compared to 47%) and young drivers are slightly more likely than older drivers (52% compared to 48%). However, far more young drivers than older drivers break the law by using a hand-held phone (41% compared to 30%).

Young drivers are also far more likely than older drivers to use their phones to text, email or surf the web at the wheel. A horrifying 44% of young drivers admit texting at the wheel, compared to 27% of older drivers, while 21% of young drivers email, go online or use apps, compared to 9% of older drivers.

Julie Townsend, Brake deputy chief executive, said: "Use a phone while driving and you are taking a horrendous risk with your own life and the lives of others. Many drivers who wouldn't dream of drink-driving are using phones while driving, oblivious that the effect on your reaction times can be similar. We're urging people to drive smart, recognising that phone use at the wheel can and does destroy lives, and no call or text is ever that important. If you need to use your phone urgently, pull over somewhere safe first: it's as simple as that. We are also calling on the government to do more to tackle phone use at the wheel, including banning hands-free phones and bringing in far stiffer penalties."

Andy Goldby, Director of Motor Underwriting and Pricing, said: "Driving whilst using a hand-held phone is against the law, yet many drivers continue to flout it. Whilst it is legal to speak 'hands-free' it's just as distracting, and even the slightest distraction whilst driving can have the gravest consequences.

"Much more needs to be done to deter motorists from the dangers of using mobile phones whilst driving, as any action that involves taking your eyes off the road or your mind from the task increases your chance of a collision. Too many people are either still unaware that using a mobile phone can be a major distraction to their concentration while driving, or are simply ignoring the rules of the road. Mobile phones have now become such an intrinsic part of many people's lives; unfortunately they can also be a way of ending them."


Using a phone while driving significantly reduces drivers' ability to focus on the road ahead and react to hazards. Drivers who use either a hand-held or hands-free device while driving are four times more likely to crash [4]. When using a hand-held phone drivers take half a second longer to react than normal. [5].

A study by Direct Line, carried out by Transport Research Laboratory, showed driver reaction times, are 30% slower when using a hands-free mobile phone than when over the legal alcohol limit [6].

Research into the impact of sending or receiving text messages among young drivers found the amount of time drivers spent with their eyes off the road increased by up to 400%. Drivers made 28% more lane excursions and 140% more incorrect lane changes [7].

Drivers caught using a hand-held phone at the wheel (to call or text) face a fixed penalty notice of £60 and three points. In May 2011 the government announced this fine is will increase to £80 - £100. In some cases drivers may go to court and face disqualification and a maximum fine of £1,000. But it could be much worse. If you kill someone while using a phone you could face up to 14 years in prison, as well as the knowledge that someone died because of your decision to pick up your phone at the wheel.

Research shows a clear and significant difference in safety terms between speaking on a phone at the wheel and chatting to a passenger. Drivers on phones have slower reaction times and worse speed control, while those speaking to passengers perform nearly as safely as drivers with silent passengers [8].

Advice to drivers

However much you love your phone, when you are driving you need to put it out of sight and out of mind. Texting, emailing, taking or making a call (on a hand held or hands free phone), inputting details into an app, repeatedly glancing at the screen: all are major distractions that put your life and the lives of others at risk. Driving is the most dangerous and complex activity most of us do on a daily basis and it requires your full concentration. Your phone can wait.

Make Brake's safe driving Pledge, including not using a phone at the wheel, at 

Recommendations to government

Brake is urging the government to:

  • Ban the use of hands-free mobile phones when driving in line with research showing it dramatically increases crash risk.
  • Change the law so being caught using a mobile phone while driving results in a disqualification for a minimum 12 month period, to provide a real deterrent from this dangerous behaviour; failing this, at the very least we need a far higher fixed penalty fine for this offence.
  • Make traffic policing a national policing priority, to enable an increase in traffic police, enforcing mobile phones offences and providing an effective deterrent to drivers who would flout the law.
  • Conduct widespread media campaigns that highlight the dangers of mobile phone use at the wheel, alongside other distractions, and the consequences of causing a serious crash or being caught. 
  • Incorporate road safety into the national curriculum to ensure the next generation of drivers understands the dangers of using a phone at the wheel.

Read more on Brake's drive smart campaign.

Case study

Lorna Foley, Rushden, Northamptonshire

On 23 August 2010, Lorna Foley's life changed dramatically. Lorna was a passenger in her boyfriend's car on the A6, when a car travelling in the opposite direction pulled out into their path, hitting them head on.

Lorna was pinned between the engine and her seat. She sustained serious injuries including a six inch gash on her head, deep lacerations on her left arm, a broken wrist, and dislodged vertebrae in her back. Lorna has been told that her head injury will take at least two years to recover from, while the damage to her back is likely to cause her problems with walking and exercise for the rest of her life.

The driver was later found to have been talking on her mobile phone at the time of the crash.

Lorna said: "When I see drivers talking on their phones it frightens me this could happen to someone else. I know I was very lucky: I suffered awful injuries, but I'm still alive. Lots of people aren't so lucky. Many drivers seem so confident about their driving they think it's 'second nature', and okay to do other things at the same time, but they're kidding themselves. If you drive and use a phone you can't be paying full attention, and in the blink of an eye it could lead to tragedy. I never use my phone when driving because I understand the consequences. I urge all drivers to commit to never using their phone at the wheel either. It just isn't worth it: find a safe spot, pull-up and make your call then."

End notes

[1] Using a hands-free mobile whilst driving can be more dangerous than drink driving, Transport Research Laboratory, 2009
[2] Role of mobile phones in motor vehicle crashes resulting in hospital attendance: a case-crossover study, University of Western Australia, 2005
[3] Adverts have been created and produced for Brake pro-bono by Blue Hive.
[4] Role of mobile phones in motor vehicle crashes resulting in hospital attendance: a case-crossover study, University of Western Australia, 2005
[5] Using a hands-free mobile whilst driving can be more dangerous than drink driving, Transport Research Laboratory, 2009
[6] ibid
[7] The effects of text messaging on young novice driver performance, Monash University Accident Research Centre, 2006
[8] Role of mobile phones in motor vehicle crashes resulting in hospital attendance: a case-crossover study, University of Western Australia, 2005