New figures have offered a glimmer that the message on drivers’ illegal phone use might be getting through after tougher punishments were introduced.
According to data release by 38 police forces, around 1,700 fewer drivers were stopped for using a handheld phone at the wheel in the three months after the introduction of the new penalties compared with the previous three months.
Figures published by the RAC following a Freedom of Information request has shown 14,160 drivers were caught on their mobile devices between March and May 2017 – down from December 2016 to February 2017’s 15,861.
Since March 2017, new laws have doubled the penalty for phone use behind the wheel to a £200 fine and six points.
RAC estimates a hardcore of 9m drivers in using a mobile while driving and says the severe cuts in police numbers is a major “cause for concern”.
The number of drivers admitting to making or receiving calls illegally is 23% down from 31% in 2016, but of those questioned about the new penalties 15% - or an estimated 5.3m drivers – said they had not changed their habits at all.
London saw the sharpest fall in drivers caught. Forty-one drivers were stopped after the new penalties came in compared with 124 in the previous period – a drop of 67 per cent. Durham Constabulary stopped 73 drivers, down from 149 (a 51 per cent fall) while Surrey Police caught 279, down from 564 (a 51 per cent fall).
However, while 25 forces recorded a fall in the number of drivers caught for the offence of using a handheld phone at the wheel after the new penalties, some 11 saw a rise and two saw the number unchanged.
RAC road safety spokesman Pete Williams said: “It is still much too early to tell if the stricter penalties that were introduced in the spring are changing drivers’ behaviour.
“But these figures perhaps give hope that at least some are starting to get the message that driving and using a handheld phone to talk, text or tweet don’t mix.
“Following the introduction of tougher penalties for using a handheld phone at the wheel from March, we know police forces are running regular targeted campaigns to catch offenders – so one way of reading these new figures is to say that this activity, at least in some parts of the country, is beginning to yield results.
“But the flip side to this is the possibility that enforcement levels are still much lower than they need to be to stamp out this illegal activity. “The severe cuts in the number of dedicated roads policing officers across the UK, down 27% in the five years to 2015, continues to be a major source of concern.
“We expect it will be having an impact on enforcement levels – not least because catching people committing the crime of using a handheld phone at the wheel relies on officers observing drivers’ behaviour.