Smart phone using driver in action

Phone using drivers: a major source of distraction and a massive assault on road safety

Published: 2018-06-04

The massive impact of the smart phone in penetration, functionality and intrusiveness has created a wide range of opportunities and problems for both society and individuals. Distracted driving is nothing new. Drivers have been eating, grooming, changing CDs and chatting away while driving for decades. However, the current omnipresent use of phones while driving has caused a paradigm shift in this area. The migration from mobile to smart phone, which, depending on its use, creates an additional and longer term visual screen distraction, has significantly multiplied the occurrence of distracted driving. The recent reversal in the long term trend of decreasing traffic deaths since the mid-70s in most developed countries is also blamed on increased use smartphones while driving. For this article we assess the impact of Phone Using Drivers (PUDs)  on road safety and what could be done to remedy this colossal problem.


A 2014 Harvard University Kennedy School paper (*1) on the relationship between 6.700 crashes and mobile phone calls at cell-tower level in a mid-sized European country concluded “scaling our estimates by the number of crashes in our data, we estimate that a 100% increase in call volumes is associated with a 15% to 43% increase in the likelihood of a serious crash.” This study is based on mobile phone calls and not on data traffic, which is more relevant now with the increase in the penetration of more distractive smartphones and the associated use of apps and messaging services. The correlation between number of calls and number of accidents is statistically significant. The study also states: “the Governors’ Highway Safety Association (GHSA) estimates that 7-10% of drivers are using a cell phone at any point in time and that cell phone use is a significant contributor to automobile accidents (15-30% of vehicle crashes involve at least one distracted driver).”

A research project by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (*2) with video cameras actively monitoring driver behaviour and degree of distraction just prior to crashes said “that distraction was a factor in 68.3% of the 905 injurious and property damage crashes observed”. The study also mentioned: “actively interacting with an adult or teenaged passenger is the most prevalent individual activity, but it has a relatively low associated risk. By contrast, interacting with a handheld cell phone occurs more than 6% of the time, with a risk that is 3.6 times higher than model driving. In addition, cell phone activities have changed even in recent years with the emergence of texting and browsing online. This is probably the single factor that has created the greatest increase in US crashes in recent years, working against the general trend of crash and fatality reduction. An increased need or want to remain connected and productive via cell phones has the potential to escalate distraction-related crashes into the future.”

A 2015 EU – ERSO (*3) survey report focusing mostly on European countries specified that “between 1% and 11% of drivers use telephones while driving, with many drivers reporting occasional use. “ The report also mentions that: ‘Driver reaction times are 30% slower when telephoning while driving than driving with BAC levels of 80mg/100ml and 50% slower than under normal driving conditions.” In most EU countries driving with 50mg/100ml or more is considered impaired and illegal for regular non-professional, non-novice drivers for whom the limit is considerably lower.

A majority of the studies also conclude that there is no difference in the negative impact (e.g. reduced reaction time) between hand-held and hands-free use, meaning the distraction comes mainly from the lack of attention for and concentration on the driving task and not control over the vehicle (i.e. one hand off the steering wheel)  (*4 Caird et al., 2008). In most countries, with the exception of Japan and Portugal, true hands-free smartphone use is allowed.  The hands-free definition varies from country to country (*5).

The European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) reports that the French Association Prévention Routière says 4 out of 10 drivers use their mobile phones at the wheel. A recent survey of motorists by AA Ireland said half of motorists see drivers using their phones at the wheel on a daily basis. France’s Sécurité Routière, part of the Interior Ministry,  claims that about 10 percent of the country’s road accidents are caused at least in part by PUDs.

SWOV, the Netherlands Institute for Road Safety Research, presents a factsheet of studies on distraction and phone use while driving (*6).  SWOV director dr. Peter van der Knaap stated that the risk of getting involved in a serious traffic accident increases 10-fold when smartphones are used while driving.  He also stated that enforcement of phone use while driving should be intensified. The next paragraph deals with measures to address smartphone use.

How to reduce smartphone use while driving?

Due to the massive impact described above reducing smartphone use while driving is currently a top priority among road safety policy makers. These policies focus on several areas: enforcement, legal access to call and data logs, new technologies, corporate social responsibility, and publicity and education.


A WHO study (*7) states:  “data suggest that in many countries, legislative effects have not been very successful in sustaining reduced mobile phone use rates and that the passage of legislation is not sufficient by itself to have an impact on use of mobile phones by drivers”. This suggests enforcement it lacking. But enforcement of handheld smartphone use while driving is complex, labour intensive and sometimes legally challenging. As mentioned, hands-free calling is also risky and hard to enforce, since it is hard to see if the driver is talking on the phone, to passengers in the car or just singing. However, if this results in careless or dangerous driving it is enforceable under other traffic laws in most counties. In practise this is difficult and labour intensive for the police. To reduce discussions on legal issues and directly with the police, the relevant law in many countries specifies that a mobile device cannot be held or touched while driving, whether it is being used or not. But since this type of enforcement is mostly done manually, sufficient police officers are required. However, in many countries the manual enforcement capacity, i.e. the number of  police officer hours on the road, has been reduced. This clashes with the explosion of mobile phone use while driving. As a result the risk of being caught as PUD is relatively low.

If caught, penalties can be stiff (ref table 1 and *8). In many countries fines for this violation increased considerably. e.g.  in the UK from £30 to £60 in 2007, then to £100 in 2013 and to £200 in 2017, with the loss of driving license points doubling from 3 to 6 (out of a limit of 12 for an experienced driver). France has very strict laws with only entirely hands-free and headphone-free phone use being allowed. From 2019 PUDs being caught in France run the risk of losing their license immediately if phone use occurs in simultaneously with another traffic violation. Even Sweden, the world’s most road safe country, with no law banning mobile phones while driving until 2017, is now catching up with new regulations. For a long time Sweden only focussed on public awareness campaigns for discourage PUDs. An Austrian organisation is calling for an increase in the EUR 50 penalty after new figures showed four times as many distracted drivers were sanctioned as those caught for drink driving.

The quoted WHO report confirms that “experience from the United States and the United Kingdom suggests that sustained, publicized and targeted enforcement is essential to achieving longer term compliance” (of mobile device laws).

Legal access to call and data logs

This paragraph is related to enforcement, but specifically deals with the legal access of data related to smartphones in case of serious crashes.  Many countries are late updating their laws and procedures with the options that new technology offers. In many countries alcohol and drug tests of involved drivers are mandatory after crashes, especially in case of injuries and casualties.  However, this does not happen with the the data and call logs of the mobile phones of drivers. Also here the mobile network providers should be legally obliged to provide the authorities with data and phone call logs. This now only happens in court cases with casualties. The issue at stake here is the balance between road safety for society and the right to prevent self-incrimination for the individual.  Similarity, the moment an airbag is deployed, a range of data are registered by the event recorder which as a ‘black box’ is an integral part of each airbag system. Such data (speed, gear and steering wheel position, braking action, engine RPM, throttle position in percentage, etc.) should also be legally made available to the authorities as part of any accident investigation with injuries and casualties.  

Besides accident analysis, this ‘data handle’ may be very a important aspect to present during publicity as well. In this way you convey the message “there is no escape” and that violators can be traced and severely punished in case of serious crashes.


It is technically possible to take videos or photos to catch PUDs. However, other than with speeding and red light violations there is no trigger threshold e.g a measured speed or the passing of a line when the signal is on red. This means photos and continuous video need to be taken and recorded of all passing vehicles. These then need to checked manually by going through all photo and video coverage. New cameras then need to be procured and installed, since most of the currently installed speed and red-light cameras are not suitable for such enforcement. They are either installed photographing license plates at the back side of vehicles or lack the flash power and/or image resolution to deliver sufficient quality images of video. Countries with driver liability, such as Germany, Switzerland and the Nordics may be more suited for these operations since all their enforcement cameras are already front facing due to the flash through the front window to identify the driver. However, camera quality may not be sufficient for the public prosecutor to be able to show and prove in court it was indeed a mobile or smartphone that was being held.

Video analytics could be used as trigger to detect a violation with a fair degree of certainty, e.g. an arm with the hand along the side the face could be automatically identified as a potential PUD. However, there will still be many false positives. Therefore, back-office operations require high staffing levels to re-check extensive photo and video footage. Scratching an ear is different from holding a phone.

Also here there may be legal issues. In the Netherlands the authorities found out that automated enforcement of PUDs is not possible for the reason that such violations need drivers to be stopped and fined on the spot manually by police officers. A legal review of the law was ordered by the minister of justice.

Long jail sentences are issued when PUDs cause an deadly crash while operating a phone, but proving that the PUD was texting, calling or handling his/her phone at the time of the crash may sometimes be difficult, especially if access to obtaining call and data logs is not feasible.

Corporate social responsibility

Besides the police and policymakers, there are several other stakeholders who could contribute to reducing irresponsible phone use while driving. These include companies that own a vehicle fleet, insurance companies, handset manufacturers, mobile network operators.

For road safety, liability and CSR reasons, major companies (e.g. Shell, UPS, TimeWarner, Tata Steel) have prohibited their staff from using mobile phones while driving, also in a hands-free mode. Insurance companies can reject coverage or increase premiums for owners that have been fined for using a phone while driving (*9).  In some circumstances insurance coverage may also be forfeited if the driver is involved in a crash while using a mobile phone (*5). Governments themselves can also set the example: all government employees in the United States are banned from text messaging while driving on official business or while using a government-issued mobile phone (*7).

It is remarkable that the hardware manufacturers and mobile network operators have not taken a more active role to reduce this problem. While most beer breweries and distilleries have warnings or statements on their website about responsible use of their products, this author failed to find a single reference on the website of two major smartphone manufacturers referring to the issue of PUDs. The GSM Association (GSMA), representing mobile phone operators worldwide, has provided guidelines and recommends limited use of mobile phones while driving. However, few mobile network operators take their CSR role and actively discourage their clients from calling behind the wheel in publicity campaigns. Vodafone has developed local apps with road safety NGOs in India and Egypt. With several optional apps available to restrict PUDs, software developers have been more innovative than handset manufacturers and mobile network operators. Such features should come pre-installed in all new mobile phones with opt-outs for each trip.

Also in the area of technology smartphone hardware manufacturers could have shown more innovation to address the PUD problem. With the GPS function smartphones are able to identify if they are being used in a car and could be switched off unless the owner confirms he/she is a passenger, travelling by train and not driving or will use his phone handsfree.  These apps or similar features should be intrusive with the option for the phone owner to confirm to ignore them each time similar to the satnav confirmation each time you start your car.

In addition to a call and data log kept by the mobile telecom provider, an unerasable data and call log on handsets should also be a feature available to crash investigators.

Publicity and education

The adage “no effective enforcement without proper pubility and no effective publicity without proper  enforcement” also holds for reducing the number of PUDs. Regular and targeted publicity campaigns should specify the road safety dangers of smartphone distraction and the financial and legal consequences for potentially violating and crashing drivers. Youngsters who find in hard to not be glued to their screens will need special campaigns. Driver and school traffic education should also incorporate this message structurally.  

UK Think campaign against mobile phone use while driving
UK Think campaign against mobile phone use while driving


Smartphone use while driving is a huge road safety nightmare, which is hard to eradicate without a strategic and structured approach. Hopefully, due to a well balanced mix of enforcement, publicity and education, proper risk assessment by drivers of the dangers and consequences of smartphone use while driving, has the same societal effect as the earlier drink drive campaigns thus making PUDs a rare occurrence.


  1. Humanitarian Technology: Science, Systems and Global Impact (2014), HumTech 2014, Cell Phones and Motor Vehicle Fatalities Erich Muehleggera , Daniel Shoaga,∗ Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Unites States:
  2. Driver crash risk factors and prevalence evaluation using naturalistic driving data (2016) Dingus, T.A. et al – Proceedings of the National Academy of Science,  March 8, 2016. 113 (10) 2636-264, Washington DC, United States:
  3. Cell phone use while drivinig (2015) – EU – ERSO, Brussels, Belgium:
  4. A meta-analysis of the effects of cell phones on driver performance (2008) – Caird, J.K. et al, Accident Analysis & Prevention, Elsevier, New York, NY, United States:
  5. Mobile phone use while driving: Policy (2016), National Center for Information on Non-ionizing Radiation and its Effects on Public Health (TNUDA) – Tel Hashomer, Israel –
  6. Factsheet on Mobile Phone use while Driving (2017), Netherlands Institute for Road Safety Research,  The Hague, The Netherlands –
  7. Mobile Phone Use: A Growing Problem of Disraction (2011), World Heath Organisation, Geneva, Switzerland –
  8. Fine levels hand-held mobile phone use (2018) – NGO I am Road Smart, Welwyn Garden City, United Kingdom  –
  9. Phone Driving Expenses Shock (2018) – The Express, London, United Kingdom –

Philip Wijers

Published: 2018-06-04

5 thoughts on “Phone using drivers: a major source of distraction and a massive assault on road safety”

    1. Thanks for your valuable comment. Indeed good not to use any distracting device while moving in traffic, including walking and cycling. In many counties there are laws and fines that apply to cycling while holding a phone. To my knowledge not while walking. In would appreciate any comments on this. Thanks in advance.

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