DRIVERS are risking lives by not just making phone calls while behind the wheel but carelessly checking websites and sending texts.
Almost 700 people have been caught using a mobile while driving in Hartlepool in the past three years.
Safety experts say using internet enabled smartphones in cars is now more dangerous than drink driving, but is not seen as socially unacceptable.
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The hi-tech gadgets let people quickly access social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter on the move, but safety chiefs and police say doing so behind the wheel can be deadly.
A Cleveland Police spokeswoman said: “The use of a mobile phone while driving affects your concentration and means that you take your eyes off the road. This has resulted in numerous collisions and even fatalities. We would urge drivers to wait until they have stopped in a safe place to use their phone or keep it switched off until it is appropriate to use it.”
Simon Best, chief executive of road safety charity Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), said: “If you’re taking your hand off the wheel to use the phone, reading the phone display and thinking about your messages, then you’re simply not concentrating on driving.
“It’s anti-social networking and it’s more dangerous than drink driving and it must become just as socially unacceptable.
“Young people have grown up with smartphones and using them is part of everyday life. But more work needs to be done by the Government and social network providers to show young people that they are risking their lives and the lives of others if they use their smartphones while driving.”
Police caught 693 people driving while using a handheld mobile phone in Hartlepool between 2009-2011, the punishment for which is three driving licence penalty points and a £60 fine.
Last year saw 174 people caught, 2010 had 254 and 265 were stopped by police in 2009.
The shocking figures, which came from a Freedom of Information request, are made even more stark when looking at research by IAM and the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL).
They carried out a study to test the effects of receiving Facebook messages while driving compared to drink driving.
It showed that using a mobile for social networking slows reaction times by 37.6 per cent while driving just above the UK driving limit slows reaction times by between six and 15 per cent.
Texting saw a 37.4 per cent reaction reduction and a call 26.5 per cent.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) say people using a mobile phone while driving are four times more likely to crash and injure or kill themselves or other people.
The organisation says using a phone makes people lose awareness of what is happening around them, react slower and feel more stressed and frustrated.
Duncan Vernon, RoSPA’s road safety manager, said: “Research has firmly established that using a mobile phone while driving adversely affects driver performance and increases the risk of crashing.
“Sadly, despite legislation which makes it illegal to do so, many people do still use a mobile phone behind the wheel.”