Britain's senior road safety campaigners are calling for a ban on smoking while driving, in an attempt to cut the number of crashes.

The Department of Health said last night that it would seriously consider a ban, which is also being looked at in Germany, Australia and America. The move was backed by anti-smoking campaigners but drew criticism from others as an attack on personal freedom. From 1 July, England will join the rest of the UK by introducing a ban on smoking in enclosed public places and at work.

The Local Authority Road Safety Officers' Association, which represents councils - responsible for the majority of Britain's roads - will meet transport officials within weeks to ask them to pass a ban on smoking at the wheel.

The association claims that drivers are in danger when they take their hands off the wheel to find, light and smoke cigarettes, and are particularly at risk if a lit cigarette or ash falls in the car or is blown back through the window. The organisation, which represents 180 of Britain's 200 local roads authorities, fears that once people who drive are stopped from lighting up in other places from 1 July, they will smoke more while in their own cars.

'Driving is a complicated business, especially with the high volume of traffic motorists have to contend with these days. It's not an area where you can multi-task,' said Simon Ettinghausen, a spokesman for the association. He said the existing law banning the use of hand-held mobile phones in cars showed special bans were more effective than general road-safety legislation.

'In this country, we're libertarians, we like to give people freedoms, but if you are distracted unfortunately your freedom to do these things can affect other people's lives,' he added. Last year there were 3,201 deaths on Britain's roads.

The Department of Health said it was 'looking at how we can get further momentum towards smoking cessation beyond the introduction of the smoking ban in England'.

'We are looking at further proposals and this could be one of them. If the road safety officers put information and evidence before us about this, and explain the case for it, we would study it,' said a spokeswoman.

Amanda Sandford of the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health said: 'We fully support this proposal. Not so long ago it would have seemed inconceivable that we would have a total ban on smoking across the country, but in a few years time people will think it's inconceivable that we allow people to continue to smoke while driving.'

Andrew Lansley, the Conservative shadow Health Secretary, condemned the plan as a denial of citizens' rights to decide how they behave in their own personal space. 'Parliament hasn't accepted the completely anti-libertarian view that people can't do what they like in their own homes and own cars,' he said.