The RAC is warning that the popularity of smartphones risks creating a new generation of motorists who believe using a phone while driving is acceptable.
The organisation's Report on Motoring 2011 has revealed that almost half of young drivers have admitted to using a smartphone to listen to music, read emails and check maps while driving.
Despite it being illegal to use a phone at the wheel, the RAC report found that 48 percent of drivers aged 18-24 had admitted to smartphone distractions, with 24 percent using an iPod to listen to music, 23 percent reading emails and 22 percent checking Google maps.
A further 15 percent said they talked to friends using BlackBerry Messenger or similar services, and 15 percent used Twitter while driving. Almost one in 10 admitted they had played games on their smartphone while driving, and more than a fifth had texted behind the wheel.
The RAC said that while car distractions were a problem among drivers of all ages, with 12 percent of motorists admitting they receive or make non-hands-free calls while driving, the issue is particularly acute among the young – a quarter of drivers consider mobile phone usage a bigger issue than drink driving.
Adrian Tink, RAC motoring strategist, said: "The popularity of smartphones and apps, especially among younger drivers who have grown up with the technology, risks creating a new generation of drivers who believe using a phone behind the wheel is acceptable. This has to change."
He explained: "At 70mph your car travels around the length of six double decker buses every two seconds – if someone told you to close your eyes at that speed for that length of time you'd think they were crazy – yet people are doing virtually the same thing by taking their eyes off the road to look at phones."
Those caught driving while using a handheld phone receive three penalty points on their licence and a fine of £60. If the case goes to court those convicted can be disqualified from driving and face a more hefty fine of up to £1,000.
But two-thirds of drivers want to see a "three strikes" rule introduced by the government, whereby those caught using their phone three times would lose their licence for a year. More than half would like to see an increase in the number of points awarded to a driver's licence if caught.
"Sustained education and public awareness campaigns have turned drink-driving into a socially unacceptable offence – we need to do the same for using handheld mobile phones behind the wheel," Tink said.