CRASHES caused by drivers distracted while using a mobile phone at the wheel will become a bigger killer than drink-driving within the next 12 months.
Road safety campaigners are warning that the number of motorists using mobile phones to make calls, texts or social media updates while driving has risen to epidemic levels, and distracted driving is expected to be the biggest single cause of death and injuries on the roads next year.
The Government has recently raised the idea of doubling the penalty points from three to six, but campaigners say that is not enough and are pressing for a year-long ban.
Department for Transport figures reveal that 378 crashes specifically involving mobile phone use were reported in 2012, the most yet recorded, and these resulted in 548 casualties, including 17 deaths.
But motoring experts say that this figure gives a false impression of the true scale of the problem, as many cases involving phones are classed instead as an 'in-vehicle distraction'.
Between 2010 and 2012, in-vehicle distractions led to 9,012 accidents and 196 deaths.
When these figures are combined, the total number of deaths is 213, only 27 less than are caused by drink-driving. And with the current steep decline of drink-drive deaths, mobile phone distraction is expected to become the biggest cause of death on the roads by 2015.
Simon Marsh, managing director of incident video camera firm SmartWitness, said: "The problem is far more widespread than the Department of Transport believes, and driver distraction due to mobiles will soon be the biggest single cause of death on the roads.
We believe a large number of serious and fatal accidents are wrongly classed as 'in-vehicle distraction' when the specific cause of the accident was down to mobile phone use.
"The only real deterrent is a one-year ban from driving for anyone caught texting at the wheel.
"It's clear that the current legislation isn't working and an increase to six points for mobile offenders will not be enough to stop the death toll.
"Lives are being ruined just for the reason that someone wants to send a text message while driving.
"The only message that should be sent is from Government to motorists that this is not acceptable."
The number of drivers prosecuted for using a mobile is rocketing. In 2012, 583,686 drivers were fined £60 and received three points on their licence, more than 10 times the 55,300 convictions for drink driving that year, and the age group of 18-25 which is the most likely to use mobile phones while driving has seen the biggest rise in traffic deaths.
And Simon called for tougher penalties and better education.
"The vast majority of people who use a phone when driving think it's highly unlikely that they will get caught," he said.
"It's not been thoroughly policed and the penalties aren't that stiff, so people are prepared to take the risk.
"But there should also be greater education for young drivers to see the huge dangers of using their phone when driving, like there has been in the USA and Japan."
Last month, Volkswagen launched a viral campaign called 'Eyes On The Road' to raise awareness of mobile use in Japan.
The educational video has been watched more than 26 million times.