People who drive while using their mobile phones are as dangerous as drink drivers or motorists under the influence of drugs.
The stark warning was issued during a Parliamentary debate highlighting the hidden killer of using mobile phones while driving.
The debate was called by Conservative peer Baroness Emma Pidding who praised Johnston Press’s Drive For Justice campaign for highlighting the scandal of lenient sentencing for those who kill on the roads.
The investigation last month revealed how drivers who kill have been sentenced to an average of just four years in prison - with dozens escaping jail altogether.
And not a single person has been handed the maximum 14-year sentence for causing death by dangerous driving since Parliament lengthened the sentence from 10 years in 2004.
Lady Pidding said: “I especially congratulate the Johnston Press group and its new investigations unit, which last month ran a series of hard-hitting stories highlighting the gap between sentencing for killer drivers and the level of sanctions expected by grieving families.
“The Drive For Justice Campaign, run by titles including The i, the Derbyshire Times, the Mansfield Chad, the Scotsman, The Lancashire Evening Post and The Star in Sheffield, is a major contribution to the national debate and a significant boost for public awareness.”
Lady Pidding highlighted the spiralling death rate from accidents caused by drivers distracted while using their mobile phones - in contrast with a marked fall in the number of fixed penalty notices for phoning while driving.
She said: “People recognise drink driving and fatigue at the wheel for the killers they are - and there is no shortage of campaigning against them.
“I see phone-driving as the hidden killer. I want it to become as socially unacceptable as drink driving has and I want the criminal justice system to tackle it with equal vigour.
“I am grateful to get this chance to put these grave concerns before Parliament and hopefully to start a serious national debate about how we stop this growing toll of death and injury.”
During the debate, Lady Pidding highlighted the tragic death of Bedfordshire mother Tracy Houghton and three children who were returning from holiday when their car was hit on the A34 by a lorry driver who was using his phone.
From 2011 to 2015 there were 2106 accidents resulting in 103 deaths which were caused by drivers being distracted while on their mobile phones.
A further 15,155 accidents in this period were caused by other distractions from inside the car, which resulted in 349 deaths.
Yet despite this, the number of fixed penalty notices issued in England and Wales for using hand held mobile phones while driving, fell significantly from 123,100 in 2011 to 16,900 in 2015.
The baroness also highlighted research showing that talking on a hand held mobile phone posed a risk four times greater that posed by an undistracted driver - on a par with those driving intoxicated.
Another study found that texting while driving conferred a risk of collision 23 times greater than driving undistracted.
She called for a multi-pronged approach to the problem to include increased fines and penalty points for phone driving, life sentences for dangerous driving, use of video cameras to catch culprits, public awareness campaigns and development by the phone companies of technology to block calls made behind the wheel.
Lady Pidding said: “Public awareness and perception is key to this and I commend the media organisations which have campaigned on this issue. These have included the Daily Mail’s demand for a six-point penalty and notably the Drive for Justice Campaign run by the Johnston Press’s titles.”
Drive For Justice is seeking to give families affected by the anguish of road deaths as a result of reckless and criminal driving a voice to bring about change and better justice.
Our campaign aims to:
Call on the Government to re-work sentencing guidelines and give judges specialist training so they can use the full powers that are available to them when deciding sentences for offenders
To have tougher sentences for the worst offenders
Have all culpable deaths treated as manslaughter
See more driving bans and longer driving bans handed out to those who kill or seriously injure on the roads or risk injury and death
Close the loopholes that exist such as with hit and runs where failure to stop carries a maximum of six months in prison while drink driving penalties are tougher meaning those who have been drink driving can get a lesser sentence if they flee the scene
Look at the charges of Dangerous Driving and Careless Driving. Bereaved families feel “careless” undermines the severity of the offence when someone is killed or seriously injured by illegal and risky behaviour.
An online petition produced as part of a campaign has already gained nearly 3,000 signatures. Sign it here.