Findings from 2021's comprehensive study of UK drivers' views

The dangers on our roads

Introduction


The reckless, careless or illegal actions of other motorists are among the biggest concerns for UK drivers, this year’s Report on Motoring has found. The use of handheld mobile phones at the wheel, the poor standard of other people’s driving and the aggressive behaviour of other road users are three of the five most widespread concerns in 2021.

Meanwhile, more drivers admitted to speeding this year on all roads other than motorways than did so in 2020. This is arguably a result of the lighter traffic volumes that resulted from national lockdown restrictions and which have tempted some drivers to break the law.

Handheld mobile phones


The use of handheld mobile phones while at the wheel is a top concern for three in 10 drivers (31%) this year. This figure is in line with the 32% recorded in 2020 but below the recent medium-term average: in 2019, for example, the rate was 36% and it was 38% a year earlier. With drivers spending less time on the roads as a result of the pandemic, however, it is not surprising that concern in this area has fallen to some extent.

Handheld phone use is a bigger issue for older drivers: 35% of those aged between 45 and 54, and 39% of the over-65s say it is a top concern.

The Report also asked drivers how much they themselves use handheld mobile phones at the wheel. As has been the case in previous years, a clear majority of motorists (73% in 2021) say they never make or receive calls when driving, while 59% never use their phone for calls while stationary with the engine on. However, a small minority continue to use their phones despite the risks, not to mention the consequences of being caught engaging in such illegal behaviour – in 2021, the proportion of motorists who use handheld phones for calls while driving at least occasionally is still 26%, although this is down on the 29% recorded last year.

Meanwhile, there has been a slight but welcome decline in the percentage of drivers who send messages while driving: just 8% admit to such behaviour this year compared with 9% in 2020 and 14% in 2019, while 13% say they at least occasionally check texts or other messages while driving, though this is the lowest rate in five years. Worryingly however, 7% of motorists say they have taken a photo or filmed a video with their phone while driving – the same proportion as seen last year.

Significant age differences

When we look at handheld mobile phone usage by age, a more striking picture emerges. Younger drivers are considerably more likely to admit to using their phones while at the wheel: a huge 43% of those under 25 say they at least occasionally use a handheld phone to make or receive calls while driving compared with 26% of all drivers and just 14% of over-65s. In terms of calls taken or made while stationary with the engine on, 54% of under-25s say they have done so versus 29% of over-65s.

A third of drivers aged between 17 and 44 (34%) have sent messages while stationary in a vehicle compared with 13% of over-65s, while 12% of the former age group has messaged while driving (1% among over-65s).

Perhaps most shockingly, a fifth of under-25s (21%) admit to having made or received a video call while driving at least occasionally in the past year – three percentage points more than those who said this last year. Across all age groups, the average is 8%. However, it should be noted that the proportion of under-25s engaging in many kinds of handheld phone use while driving has still fallen in the last two years. For example, 43% of this age group made or received calls while driving this year compared with 51% in 2019; and 24% have checked messages while driving in 2021 against 35% in 2019.

Reported speeding on the rise


Compliance with speed limits on most types of roads has worsened in 2021, the Report has found. On both 60mph and 20mph roads, the number of drivers who admit to exceeding the limit at least occasionally is at its highest level since 2016 – respectively 44% and 45%. On 30mph roads, 41% of motorists admit to speeding, up from 36% last year. As in previous years, speeding is most likely to occur on motorways, although here compliance has improved very slightly, with 55% of drivers saying they have exceeded the 70mph limit compared with 56% in 2020.

The Report asked drivers to give specific reasons for breaking speed limits on different types of roads. On motorways, the most common justification – offered by 40% of drivers – is that they are driving according to the speed of others.

A third (33%) say they have broken the motorway speed limit because they think it is sometimes safe to do so, while a similar proportion (32%) say it is because there are very few other vehicles on the road.

A low number of vehicles is the most common reason given for breaking 60mph speed limits (34%), while on 30mph roads, 34% of drivers say the limit is often inappropriate for the type of road (up from 30% last year) and 33% say they are driving according to the speed of other motorists (up from 28% in 2020). If quieter roads are encouraging some drivers to break the speed limit, this in turn could lead to others doing precisely the same thing.

On both 60mph and 30mph roads a significant minority of drivers (21% and 27% respectively) say they exceed the limit because they do not look at their speedometer frequently enough.

By far the most common justification for speeding in 20mph areas is that the limit is inappropriate for the road – a view taken by 49% of those who at least occasionally exceed the limit. This is an increase on 2020’s 45% and much higher than the rates of 33% and 31% recorded in 2019 and 2018 respectively. This could reflect the fact that more 20mph zones have been rolled out in the last two years, but also that such zones are often found near schools, which had been closed for some of the period leading up to this year’s survey.

The Report also asked drivers to what extent they had exceeded limits on different types of roads: more than a third (34%) have driven faster than 80mph on a motorway (including 6% who have exceeded 90mph). On 20mph roads, 10% have driven in excess of 30mph while 44% say they have never exceeded 25mph.

Drink-driving


While drivers under the influence of drink remains a major concern for many motorists, its importance has steadily diminished over the past six years. While 29% of drivers said drink-driving was a top concern in the 2015 Report on Motoring, that proportion had fallen to 20% by 2020 and stands at 18% this year. Although the most recent declines in concern may to some extent reflect the closure of many pubs, bars and restaurants as a result of lockdown restrictions, it is also part of a longer-term trend.

Drivers aged under 25 are the most likely to express concern about drink-driving: it is the second most common concern among this age group, shared by 32% – possibly because younger drivers have greater levels of exposure to this kind of behaviour among their peers, or perhaps because drink-driving is simply now more culturally unacceptable among this age group.

The temporary closure of venues which serve alcoholic drinks is no doubt responsible for the fact that 94% of drivers do not believe they have driven while over the drink-drive limit in the past 12 months. This is the highest rate in the last six years: in 2020 the proportion was very similar (93%), but prior to the pandemic in both 2018 and 2019, compliance was significantly lower at just 81%.

Other traffic offences


The Report also asked drivers how often they see other road users commit a number of traffic offences that result in fines rather penalty points: the most common is stopping in yellow box junctions (48%) followed by drivers leaving their cars idling while parked at the side of the road (45%). Next on the list is motorists who stop in bike boxes at traffic lights (27%) and drivers disobeying no-turn or no-U-turn signs (23%).

There is strong support for using revenues raised from fines from such offences to improve local roads – 84% of drivers back this idea.

Most motorists (71%) say there is a risk that confusing signage and road layout could lead to more penalty charge notices being issued for these offences, but only 29% of drivers think that compliance with traffic rules signs has got worse in their local area over the past five years.

And in light of the fact that the Government has confirmed it will be handing councils new powers to impose fines for certain traffic offences, most drivers (67%) think local authorities should be required to issue warning notices in the first instance before handing out financial penalties.

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