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Report on Motoring 2015: 5. Road safety

Blog post   •   Sep 08, 2015 00:06 BST

Road safety and in particular the illegal and dangerous behaviour of other drivers is one of the most significant overall issues of concern for motorists in 2015. The use of mobile phones while at the wheel is an especially worrying issue.

There has been a small increase in the number of drivers who admit to breaking the speed limit – this could possibly be linked to the falling cost of fuel over much of the past 12 months.

The proportion of motorists who admit to drink-driving has not changed materially since 2014, but those who say they have taken banned drugs before driving has increased. However, this may simply reflect wider awareness of the dangers of certain prescription drugs following the introduction of new legislation in England and Wales in March 2015.


5.1 It’s bad to talk

Drivers who use their mobile phones to talk, text or use the internet are right at the top of the most significant issues of overall concern to motorists this year.

Just over a third (34%) rank these potential dangers as one of their top four issues of concern in the 2015 Report on Motoring.

Almost nine in ten drivers (86%) believe that cars are safer now than in the past, but only 37% think today’s motorists are more safety conscious. Three in ten (30%) believe driving standards are currently higher than in the past, but 41% think the opposite is true.

“Our latest figures show that the rate of drivers using hand-held mobile phones in cars is about 1-2%. Although this seems to be very low it still means that every time you go out of the house, out of every hundred cars, there are going to be two people on the phone. And so, because you see a lot of vehicles every day, you see it happening frequently despite the low rate.”

Daryl Lloyd, Head of Road Safety Statistics, Department for Transport

Figures published by the Department for Transport in June 2015 show that there was a small increase in the number of road accidents in 2014: the number of deaths on the road rose by 4% compared with the previous year while those seriously injured rose by 5%. Part of the increase can be explained by the rise in road-traffic volumes, which were up by 2.4% over this period.

However, it is very difficult to say to what extent modern distractions such as smartphones and sat nav devices have had an impact on accident rates. The greater levels of concern recorded in this year’s Report may be attributable to the fact that motorists are more aware of mobile phone use by drivers as a result of widespread media coverage of the subject. Department for Transport statistics found that 1.6% of motorists in England and Scotland were observed using a hand-held mobile phone while in moving traffic in 2014 (28).

The overwhelming majority of motorists (83%) think it is unacceptable to take even a short call with a hand-held phone while driving. But worryingly, 12% think this is a reasonable thing to do, up from 7% last year. Almost three-quarters (73%) think it is not safe to use a phone to text or check social media while in stationary traffic, although 17% believe this poses little danger.

“Rarely a day goes by without a mobile phone story somewhere in the media. Sadly it’s the story that keeps on giving because of the number of recognised figures – celebs or footballers – who get caught on camera, which suggests that many people still don’t really understand the risks they are running.”

Steve Gooding, Director, RAC Foundation

Motorists would rather see more consistent application of existing laws than higher penalties for the likes of mobile phone use. Almost eight in ten (79%) say there is no point in increasing fines or penalties unless there is effective enforcement, while 62% think there are not enough police on the roads to enforce driving laws. An increase in the number of traffic police may be unrealistic given the fiscal challenges currently facing the Government, but the RAC calls on them to halt the decline in the number of traffic police officers. Ministry of Justice figures published earlier this year showed that the number of traffic police officers in England and Wales fell by 22.7% between 2010 and 2014.

“The behaviour of other drivers ranks very highly as a concern. Mobile phones are top of the list but other devices such as entertainment systems can cause distraction. Despite cars being safer than ever, road casualty numbers increased last year and we have to find ways to ensure that drivers give 100% of their attention to the road ahead.”

David Davies, Executive Director, Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS)


5.2 Speeding up, slowing down

This year there has been a small increase in the number of motorists who admit to breaking the speed limit. This could be because falls in the price of fuel over the past 12 months allied to rising wages mean that fewer people are worried about driving in the most fuel-efficient way possible and squeezing every last mile out of every tank of fuel

Seven in every ten motorists (70%) say they regularly or occasionally break the 70mph motorway speed limit compared with 67% in 2014, and there is majority support for this limit to be raised at least to 80mph. This year, 65% of motorists back such a move, but this is a lower proportion than the 70% recorded in 2014. At the start of 2015, the coalition government said it was considering the revival of plans to introduce 80mph limits on parts of the motorway network.

Fewer drivers are inclined to break speed limits away from motorways, the Report on Motoring found: 44% admit to exceeding the 30mph urban limit (although this is a rise on the 42% recorded in 2014), 46% say they break 50mph and 60mph limits on country roads (43% in 2014) and 44% (unchanged) break the 20mph limits that apply in increasing numbers of urban areas. Most motorists are happy with 20mph limits: 61% say this is appropriate. A significant minority (33%) believe however that the limits should be raised to either 25mph or 30mph.

The RAC supports the use of 20mph limits in residential areas in the vicinity of high-risk areas such as schools and known accident blackspots. However, some authorities are extending 20mph zones to through-routes which are important arteries for business and longer-distance travel, and where adherence to 20mph limits is reported to be poorest. The RAC therefore calls on the Government to issue clearer guidance to local authorities on when and where 20mph limits are most appropriate and inappropriate.

“There has been a big expansion of 20mph zones in the last year or so, but the percentage saying the limit in these areas should be higher is actually falling. That suggests that motorists are not resisting these; maybe they are seeing the benefits from the spread of 20mph zones and perhaps as residents want the areas they live in to be safer.”

Stephen Joseph, Chief Executive, Campaign for Better Transport


5.3 Drink-driving

There has been little change over the last 12 months in the number of motorists who admit to drink-driving or travelling in a car with a driver who is over the limit. Just under a fifth (18%) of motorists say they think or know they have driven while over the limit in the past 12 months, either shortly after drinking or the morning after. In 2014, the rate was 17% and 12% say they have been in a car driven by someone who was over the limit.

Younger drivers are more likely to drink-drive: 26% of those aged between 17 and 24 think or know they have done so in the past year. But concern about drink-driving is also highest among younger age groups: for 17 to 24-year-old motorists this is the biggest issue, being cited as the number one concern by 15% of them. This may reflect the greater level of first-hand experience of drink-driving that younger motorists have.

Despite official statistics showing that younger drivers are more likely to be involved in serious road-traffic accidents the coalition government did not manage to fulfil its pledge to publish a green paper on young driver safety. The RAC calls on the new Government to urgently make proposals on how safety among younger motorists could be improved.

This may involve wider use of telematics insurance policies – which base premiums on recorded driver behaviour – or a system of graduated licencing, which could limit the times at which teenage drivers are allowed the road, as well as restrict the number of passengers they are able to carry.

More than half (56%) of motorists think the blood-alcohol limit should be reduced at least to 50mg/100ml from the current 80mg/100ml level, as it was in Scotland in December 2014. The situation of having different limits in different parts of the UK is clearly unsatisfactory and the RAC calls on the Government to take steps to mirror Scotland’s approach across the rest of the UK.


5.4 Drug-driving

In March 2015, the coalition government introduced new drug-driving legislation. This gave police the powers to use “drugalyser” devices at the roadside and identified 12 illegal and 12 prescription drugs which could impair drivers’ ability, leaving them open to prosecution under the new laws if police decide they are unfit to drive.

The Report on Motoring found that 6% of motorists say they have driven under the influence of drugs in the past 12 months, a sharp rise on last year’s 2%.

But this may be due to increased awareness of the fact that there are a number of legal drugs which can render motorists unfit to drive.

Worryingly, a sizeable minority of motorists (37%) do not believe the new law will reduce the number of drug-drivers on the roads. This is largely because drug-drivers are viewed as risk takers and so more likely to ignore such a law and risk being caught.

The Report also confirmed once again that drug-drivers are much more likely to be drink-drivers: of the 6% who admit to driving under the influence of drugs, two thirds (4%) also claim to have driven under the influence of alcohol.

Conviction rates may however understate how widespread drug-driving is given that police find it easier and cheaper to test for drink-driving. Penalties for the two offences are the same and in cases where motorists are suspected of being affected by both drugs and alcohol, police will tend to prosecute only for the latter.

Half of motorists (49%) think that drug-driving carries the same social stigma as drink-driving, while a quarter (25%) believe it is less socially acceptable. Just one in ten (9%) motorists view drug-driving as the lesser evil.

“What we have found is that a lot of people who were taking their regular prescription drugs, such as for arthritis or intense pain relief for stomach issues hadn’t really understood that the drugs they were taking were the drugs being referred to in the legislation. Perhaps the number of people who admit to having driven under the influence of drugs reflects that these people hadn’t previously realised they were doing anything illegal because their drugs were on prescription rather than illegal Class A. More work needs to be done to reassure drivers that sticking to a prescription is fine but any abuse of over the counter drugs risks a very severe penalty.”

Sarah Sillars, Chief Executive, Institute of Advanced Motorists