A significant proportion of Great Britain’s motorists are unaware of basic laws and practices that help save lives.

Research carried out by the RAC, presented in their annual Report on Motoring for 2014, suggests that drivers are failing to maintain their knowledge of the rules of the road after passing their driving test.

Even before the theory test was introduced in 1996, it has always been essential for learner drivers to consider the Highway Code. However, research carried out by the RAC from a sample of 1,526 drivers indicates that once most drivers pass their test and bin their L-plates, the rules of the road are gradually being forgotten.

Stopping distances

One of the most worrying revelations is that people are forgetting the correct stopping distances. The stopping distance is the total distance that a motorist travels before they hit the brakes, plus the distance travelled while the brakes slow the car to a stop. Most drivers underestimate the distance that it takes for their car to come to a stop. Just 16% of those drivers surveyed by the RAC remembered the correct stopping distance for a car travelling at 70mph on the motorway. The correct answer, as quoted by the Highway Code, is 24 car lengths but, disturbingly, half of the drivers believed that the correct stopping distance was 10 car lengths or less.

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It is concerning to think that a significant number of speeding motorists on our motorways believe that the stopping distance of their vehicle is less than half of what it actually is.

This lack of awareness in relation to stopping distances is particularly worrying, as the report also shows that over two thirds (67%) of drivers admit to speeding on the motorway, with 35% claiming to reach speeds of 80mph and a small minority (4%) admitting to driving at 90mph or more. I wonder how many more people drive in excess of the speed limit on the motorways and don’t admit to doing so.

The majority of drivers regard speeding on the motorways as acceptable. The report shows that 70% of motorists would like to see the speed limit on motorways increased and 58% think that it should be raised to 80mph or above. I think that, before we consider raising speed limits on our motorways, we should tackle the issue of the gradual decline in driving knowledge of stopping distances.

Using mobile phones whilst driving

In addition to the lack of knowledge of stopping distances, the majority of motorists don’t understand the law in relation to the use of mobile phones. Using a hand-held mobile phone while driving has been illegal since 2003, yet the vast majority of drivers still think that it’s perfectly legal to send texts while their car is not moving with the engine running (the report indicates that only 39% of drivers recognise that it is illegal to do so). The reason why this is illegal is because the definition of “driving” includes whenever the engine is switched on, even if the vehicle is stationary.

Three quarters of motorists report regularly seeing other people chatting on their mobile phones while driving and 44% see this happening on most of these journeys. However, surprisingly only 8% of motorists admit to doing it themselves.

There seems to be a large discrepancy here and I question whether those drivers surveyed were being entirely honest, or perhaps they simply do not consider themselves to be breaking the law whilst talking on the phone and driving.

Motorists are four times more likely to crash if they use a mobile phone while driving and the reaction time of drivers using a mobile phone is around 50% slower than when driving without one.

What’s the solution to drivers’ lack of road safety knowledge?

This significant lack of understanding of our motoring guidance and law is not tolerated amongst professional motorists who have to undergo continuous testing, such as drivers of heavy good vehicles, buses and coaches. Although these larger vehicles arguably have the capability to cause more damage, even the smallest cars can devastate lives if handled negligently. You can read about Bolt Burdon Kemp’s client’s stories here.

Facts, figures and rules can be forgotten through the passage of time and new laws can be introduced which people who already have a driving license do not fully understand. Therefore, perhaps it is now time to consider teaching and testing drivers on a regular basis with periodic theory tests so that their knowledge remains up to date.

August is National Road Victims Month, promoted by the charity RoadPeace. RoadPeace provides vital support to people bereaved and seriously injured on the roads. They also work tirelessly to reduce road deaths, injuries and suffering. Every year, especially during this month, the charity raises awareness to remember those killed or injured on our roads. The month of August is particularly appropriate because it was on 31 August 1869 that the first motor vehicle death occurred and on the same day 128 years later a car crash in Paris claimed the life of Princess Diana. The first road death in Great Britain also occurred in August 1896, after which the coroner declared that ‘this must never happen again’.