A LITTLE parlour game I sometimes play to while away the time spent stuck in traffic or waiting for the lights to change involves totting up the number of drivers using their phones around me.
I passed a personal milestone in the game the other day, when for the first time everybody I could see in two lanes of stationary traffic was either chatting on the mobile, or looking down at it instead of paying attention.
And when the cars started to move, the phone calls just carried on.
I simply don’t know how anyone can drive properly and use a hand-held mobile at the same time. I certainly couldn’t. I’d be able to concentrate on either driving or the phone, but not both.
There’s also the small matter of it being against the law to use a mobile whilst a vehicle is moving, but that doesn’t deter what must amount to millions of drivers using their phones on the road.
The strange thing is that it’s a fair bet that the vast majority of those drivers would not dream of getting behind the wheel after drinking.
Yet the mobile has become such a ubiquitous part of life that its potential for impairing driving ability to a similar degree as being drunk is being overlooked, with potentially fatal consequences.
The emergency services who have to deal with the aftermath of drivers distracted by their mobiles know only too well what those consequences can be.
Between 2011 and last year, there were 2,106 accidents, resulting in 103 deaths, caused by drivers distracted by their mobiles. We can only guess at the scale of the heartache that lies behind those bald statistics.
But over the same period, enforcement of the law prohibiting hand-held mobiles being used at the wheel has declined dramatically. In 2011, about 123,000 drivers were issued with fixed penalty notices. Last year, it was 30,000.
That suggests the problem has simply grown too big, with so many drivers on their phones that it is simply impractical for the police to stop them all.
Surveys of driving habits point to the same thing, with about 30 per cent of motorists admitting to using their phones, up from eight per cent in 2014. And with about 45m licensed drivers in Britain, that percentage amounts to a worryingly huge number of people whose attention is not fully on what is happening around them.
The danger they represent has been acknowledged by the Government, which has introduced stiffer penalties. The fine for using a mobile has doubled from £100 to £200, and drivers will get six penalty points on their licence.
Ministers are also to hold talks with phone companies and car manufacturers to discuss the feasibility of automatically blocking mobile signals when vehicles are moving.
That would be a draconian move, but something drastic needs to be done. We’re all familiar with having to avoid collisions by stepping out of the way of pedestrians who are glued to their mobile phones and oblivious to everything around them.
That mentality is transferring itself into vehicles hurtling along the motorways at 70mph or more, which is a disturbing thought.
It’s little surprise that a survey by the RAC earlier this year found that 41 per cent of drivers are now worried about other people using their phones at the wheel compared with 34 per cent a year ago.
If the Government is serious about minimising the risk, there’s only one course of action to take.
That is to make mobile use as socially unacceptable as drink driving has become, backed up by disqualification.
It won’t be a quick fix. The campaign against drink-driving has been a long one, but yielded impressive results with such dangerous behaviour far less common that it once was.
The fear factor involved in being caught drink driving, of losing a licence, which can lead to the loss of livelihood and punitive insurance premiums to get back on the road, has been one of the key factors in reducing the number of people willing to chance it.
The annual blitz on drink driving is currently under way. Driving under the influence of drugs is also being cracked down on, and it is time to take the same zero-tolerance attitude towards mobile use.
That means hard-hitting advertising campaigns that spell out the dangers, just as they have been explicit about the consequences of driving after drinking.
The young especially, who never have their mobiles out of their hands, need to be targeted.
If anybody doubts the necessity of tough action, they should reflect that when the accident statistics for Christmas and the New Year are tallied in the next few weeks, they will inevitably include incidents caused by people distracted by their phones.
And that is why the Government should act. If even a single life is saved by making drivers reluctant to take the chance of being caught on their phones, then the effort will be worth it.