Use of mobile phones while driving could be falling, according to government statistics released this week.

A joint study by the Department of Transport (DfT) and Transport Scotland found that just over 1% of motorists in Great Britain were observed illegally using a handheld devices while driving in 2017. In comparison, 1.6% of drivers were seen in 2014 – the last time such a survey was conducted.

The study involved observations at both moving and stationary traffic sites, rather than police arrests or convictions, so the reductions are not a result of falling police numbers.

But as well as uncovering a reduction in overall use, the study also revealed some marked trends. For example, Scottish motorists were far more likely to use their phones while driving, with 2% being observed committing the offence. In contrast, 0.6% of drivers in England and Wales were observed.

According to the DfT’s data, 3.3% of taxi drivers were seen on their phones, making them the most likely demographic for the offence. Just 1% of private car drivers were guilty of the same offence, and lorry drivers were the least likely to be seen on their phones, at just 0.6%.

The proportion of drivers illegally using phones was marginally higher in towns than in rural areas. Around 2.4% of van drivers were seen on their phones on urban roads, compared with 1.9% on rural roads. And it was a similar story for cars, although the figures were roughly halved at 1.1% and 0.9% respectively.

RAC road safety spokesperson Pete Williams said the number of drivers using phones may only have fallen because of the increased penalties introduced in March 2017.

“It’s clearly good news these figures show improved compliance with the law in England and Wales, but worrying they were far higher in Scotland,” he said. “It is also important to recognise the vast majority of these surveys were carried out months after the penalty for using a handheld mobile phone at the wheel was increased. It stands to reason the ‘fear factor’ of the tougher penalties would be greater in the time immediately after they were introduced.”

And Williams went on to say that phone use was still too high, suggesting that drivers would be “sceptical” of the government’s figures.

“Anecdotally, we still see too many drivers either talking on their handheld phones or interacting with them,” he said. “And perhaps more worryingly, our own research with drivers suggests the problem has far from gone away. As a result we suspect many drivers will be very sceptical of these findings as they don’t reflect what they see on a daily basis.

“As this survey is only carried out every two years, we also fear many drivers who might have changed their ways initially due to the increased penalty may have fallen back into their old ways. This isn’t helped by the decline in the number of roads police officers as some drivers aren’t as afraid of being caught breaking motoring laws as they once were.”