Drivers who cannot resist the temptation to read email, browse social networking sites, or even play games are a growing danger to themselves and others, according to the research.
The Scottish Government yesterday (tues) released road casualty figures for 2009 which suggest Scotland’s roads are the safest they have been for 60 years.But Chief Superintendent Common said “driver distraction” had been identified as of the key “threats to casualty reduction”.
He said: “The use of any distraction device, including Smart Phones, is illegal and carries the same penalties associated with making a call whilst driving.”
He added: “We are committed to stopping those motorists who continue to ignore the safety warnings and risk their life and the lives of others.”
Common, who is in charge of casualty reduction with the Association of Chief Police Officers Scotland, said he knew first hand the devastation road accidents have on families.
He added: “We would encourage everyone to acknowledge driving as a skill which requires concentration and judgement.”
Andrew Howard, head of road safety at the AA, said drivers using Twitter was emerging as a growing problem.
He said a trawl of Twitter had revealed hundreds of examples of drivers who admitted Tweeting behind the wheel.
Examples of Tweets included: “Driving a taxi”, “I’m driving top down”, “Awake, hung-over and driving”, “Trying to stay awake driving” and “Tweeting past a billboard as I speed”.
The new research from the US says the number of “distracted driving” fatalities there has rocketed by almost 30% in the past five years.
A massive increase in drivers texting while behind the wheel is blamed for much of the carnage.
And the report authors warn that using smart phone applications, or “apps”, while driving is just as dangerous as texting.
Fernando Wilson and Jim Stimpson, writing in the American Journal of Public Health, found that deaths involving distracted drivers dropped between 1999 and 2005 but a “dramatic rise” in texting was a factor in the figure increasing by 28% over the next three years from 4,572 to 5,870.
They observed: “The increase in traffic fatalities…appears to be related to a shift in how handheld devices are used; such devices require more consistent interaction.”
They added: “Smart phones such as the iPhone provide Internet browsing and access to a variety of applications such as games and navigation programs. Many of these applications involve the same inherent hazard as text messaging while driving, because the applications divert a driver’s eyes away from the road.”
Figures for the UK, provided by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa), show there were 405 deaths and serious injuries in the UK in 2006 related to distraction inside a vehicle.
The figure last year was 454, an increase of 12%. Last year, there were almost 2,500 slight accidents caused by in-car distraction.
A spokesman said smart phones offered more potential distractions to drivers than standard mobile.
He added: “We think that these figures are conservative because the investigation can take a long time to determine the cause. We suspect that the problem is worse.
“[Smartphones] have more applications than traditional phones. We have seen reports of people coming a cropper using Twitter while driving. Then there is Facebook and all these other apps.
“It does not matter if people are texting or Twittering – they are not paying full attention to the road. We advise drivers to switch off their phones when they get behind the wheel.”
REPORT: Peter Laing