Drivers 'no longer fear punishment' for mobile phone use
The number of fines issued for using mobile phones while driving fell by 43% last year, official figures show.
Last year, 16,900 motorists in England and Wales were issued with £100 fixed-penalty notices after being caught, down from 29,700 in 2014.
The RAC said the figures indicated "attitudes are clearly relaxing as a result of drivers no longer fearing punishment".
The government said it is shortly to announce tougher penalties.
Over the past five years the number of penalties issued has fallen by 86%, according to police data for England and Wales.
'Drop in cops'
The road safety charity Brake said the number of fines does not reflect the "rapidly growing problem" of mobile usage by drivers.
Mike Bristow, spokesman for Brake, said: "Instead, these figures are evidence of the alarming drop in traffic cops on our roads.
"We urge the government to make roads policing a national policing priority to prevent illegal, risk-taking behaviour behind the wheel."
The RAC said that while the numbers had "fallen off a cliff", the figures laid bare the lack of policing.
The breakdown organisation's road safety spokesman, Pete Williams, said: "The simple truth is the problem of illegal handheld phone use at the wheel is undeniably getting worse, with fewer and fewer people being caught."
Recent research from the RAC found the number of drivers who think it is acceptable to make a quick call doubled from 7% in 2014 to 14% in 2016.
Mr Williams said mobile phone usage at the wheel was an "epidemic that has been allowed to sweep across the country largely unchallenged".
"Attitudes are clearly relaxing as a result of drivers no longer fearing punishment," he added.
According to the Department of Transport, 22 people were killed in the UK last year by motorists using their phones whilst driving, and 684 people were injured.
Tougher penalties due
In September, the government set out plans for new rules to come in next year, under which drivers will get six points on their licence and face a £200 fine for using their mobiles at the wheel.
While the enforcement of road traffic offences is a police matter, a government spokesperson said: "We are clear that the illegal use of handheld devices while driving is totally unacceptable.
"We take this extremely seriously and will be shortly announcing tougher penalties for using mobile phones at the wheel."
The National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) lead for roads policing, chief constable Suzette Davenport, said in recent years police forces have adopted new tactics, such as sending offenders on courses, rather than issuing fines, to learn about the impact and consequences of driving while distracted.
She said: "While we are committed to policing these offences, we must also acknowledge that we cannot simply enforce away peoples' behaviour.
"We need to address not only the offences themselves but the attitudes which sit behind them."
According to the NPCC, studies have shown that 68% of drivers who attend driver alertness courses stated that their driving habits had changed a great deal or quite a lot as a result.