Commuting a quarter of the way around the M25 and back each day means I spend a lot of time in queues.

Such a queue requires plenty of attention on the road ahead and what's going on around you. Yet every day, I see countless drivers using their phone, whether it's for texting or reading, in their lap, hand, or on the steering wheel.

In fact, as we recently reported, in a one-week trial last November, police caught 7966 drivers on their phones, leading to more than 7800 fixed penalty notices and 68 court summons. And, as of today, a zero-tolerance law has come into force, with any driver caught using their phone behind the wheel given a minimum of six points on their licence. 

So, is driving an aspect of life that the smartphone culture of ‘always instant, never uncontactable’ has rendered many completely incapable of? Or have people always been this careless?

Well, while browsing the Autocar archives for ‘Throwback Thursday’ material, I stumbled across this passage from Steve Cropley’s column in a 1993 issue:

“Yesterday, I passed fellow motorway drivers who were (1) reading the paper (2) applying make-up (3) reaching into the passenger footwell (4) fondling an adjacent passenger and (5) adjusting the harness of a sprog in the back. A further two accident-prone idiots were reading maps held across the bosses of their steering wheels and at least a dozen more were gabbling distractedly on hand-held mobile phones. Driverless cars may be our future, but some would do well to remember they aren’t actually here yet…”

So, it turns out that a large number of people have always been irresponsible behind the wheel. Smartphones have just become the biggest of all distractions, and many people do not have the self-control and/or understanding of the danger to just leave it in their pocket.

And Cropley’s column ended presciently too. Some 24 years later, his words still ring true, although autonomous cars are certainly much more of a reality than then.

Although driverless cars face enormous hurdles before becoming commonplace, they will bring enormous benefits to everyday life: severe reductions in deaths and injuries, more time in your day, less pollution, less congestion, less stress, and giving elderly and disabled people more freedom.

Driving needn’t die, but it dying on public roads is sensible and inevitable. Self-driving cars will be more efficient, meaning fewer queues, and safer. 

And of course, it'll mean drivers in cars can use their phones to their hearts' desire while in autonomous mode. Until then, the public needs to wise up.