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Drivers are too addicted to their phones to stop using them voluntarily, research found. Alamy

Drivers have 'zero' fear of getting caught using mobile phones, as detection by gardaí slumps

Gardaí caught 35% fewer drivers on their phones last year than before the pandemic.

UNPUBLISHED RESEARCH PRESENTED to government and gardaí concluded Irish drivers estimate the risk of being caught using the phone at the wheel at “close to zero”.

Gardaí caught 35% fewer drivers using their mobile phone last year than in 2019, before the pandemic, it was also revealed at a meeting of the Ministerial Road Safety Committee in March.

The unpublished research paper by the University of Galway, obtained by The Journal under freedom of information, was presented at the same meeting.

The ministerial meeting heard that international research suggests using a phone while driving increases the risk of a collision fourfold.

Focus groups with Irish drivers found they are too addicted to and dependent on their phones, and too entrenched in the habit of using them while driving, to stop doing so voluntarily. Drivers believe that “only” increased detection and enforcement can force them to stop, the researchers found.

International experts interviewed for the research, which was commissioned by the Road Safety Authority (RSA), agreed that deterrence needed to be at the centre of any strategy to address this “intractable” problem, with fixed cameras capable of detecting phone use at the wheel and “increased police effort” named as necessary measures.

The RSA is currently running publicity campaigns against mobile phone use by drivers but the research indicated this type of work, while welcome, is likely to be marginal in impact compared with increased policing.

Jack Chambers, the junior minister responsible for road safety, challenged Garda Commissioner Drew Harris on reduced garda enforcement last year amid a surge in road deaths – in particular highlighting the slump in garda action against mobile phone use.

Chamber was present at the Ministerial Road Safety Committee in March at which the University of Galway analysis was presented, along with gardaí and officials from the Department of Transport and Road Safety Authority.

Gardaí told the same meeting that they detected, on average, two people every hour in January and February using their phone while driving, issuing over 3,000 fixed charge notices.

However, while detections of mobile phone use in 2023 were up slightly on 2022 to 19,000, this was 10,000 fewer than were caught before the pandemic in 2019.

There was also a 15% fall in the number caught drink driving over the same period and a 30% drop in the numbers intercepted by gardaí while speeding. The volume of drug driving arrests increased by 25% over the same period.

There was a 20% increase in road deaths in 2023 when 184 people lost their lives, the biggest year on year increase since 1987. 

The increase in road deaths in Ireland since before the pandemic is the worst in the EU. There has been a further increase in deaths so far this year compared with last.

There is emerging evidence that driver behaviour deteriorated during the pandemic and has not returned to what it was.

Minister Jack Chambers told the March meeting that mobile phone use was “one of the most dangerous activities a driver can engage in”, according to a draft of his opening remarks.

A note on the research prepared for the minister stated that “in-car entertainment systems can be as distracting as phone use” and noted there are “no plans presently to address this”.

The minister was also briefed for the March meeting that “the population, number of vehicles and number of licences have all grown in recent years, while the numbers in roads policing has declined”.

The Galway researchers also emphasised that mobile phone use is happening across the population and information campaigns should not be aimed only at younger drivers.

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