Mobile phone dangers: even hands-free can be hazardous for drivers

Mobile phone dangers

Using a hand-held phone at the wheel is dangerous but it’s not great using hands-free either

Mobile phone dangers at the wheel aren’t just limited to drivers who hold handsets. Research shows that even drivers who talk using hands-free kits can be less safe.

Highlighting how dangerous using a mobile phone while at the wheel can be, the penalty for using a handset was increased at the beginning of March 2017. The fine was doubled to £200 and six penalty points for drivers caught phoning or texting. It means anyone caught twice for the offence could lose their licence.

However, research shows that simply the act of talking on a phone while driving can lead to greater distraction and taking longer to react to hazards.

Why is talking on the phone while driving dangerous?

A study by the University of Sussex tested drivers in laboratory conditions. It discovered that when a conversation involved mental imagery, it led to distraction. For example, if your partner rings and asks where you put the shed key, you have to visualise the kitchen drawer to describe it. And the part of the brain you use to describe the shed key’s whereabouts is the same bit that’s used to identify hazards. It means while you’re thinking about the shed key, you might not be as aware of dangers.

What did the tests prove?

Drivers sat in a vehicle with a video screen in front of them and speakers simulating the noise of driving. As they ‘drove’ around an urban environment they were faced with hazards. When they saw things such as a pedestrian stepping into the road they had to brake. While they did this, researchers asked them questions through a speaker to simulate a hands-free phone conversation. Some drivers were asked questions that involved visualisation; others were asked questions that didn’t; some weren’t distracted at all. Researchers found that drivers distracted by using imagery spotted fewer hazards. They also took longer to react to those they did see than the other drivers. It could take up to a second longer to spot danger.

Are hand-held phones worse?

Hands-free phones aren’t great for reaction times. But hand-held phones are deemed twice as bad, researchers from safety group IAMRoadsmart found. With hand-held and hands-free, talking with a mobile phone caused a bigger distraction than being over the drink drive limit or using cannabis.

What the experts say

IAMRoadsmart said: “We believe all drivers should be aware of the risks they are taking when using any mobile while driving. Even drivers who refrain from making calls may be tempted to use a smartphone to check a message, map, update their status, or look for traffic updates. More needs to be done to educate drivers, and encourage safe behaviour.”

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) said: “Although the government accepts the evidence that using a hands-free phone while driving distracts the driver and increases the risk of an accident, they do not think a hands-free ban would be enforceable.” RoSPA disagrees.

And Dr Graham Hole, a psychologist from the University of Sussex, added: “In psychology there are a lot of contradictions. But over the years, research has been done into the effects of mobile phones on drivers in all kinds of different conditions. The results have been amazingly consistent: driver performance is impaired. I would ban the use of phones by drivers altogether. I don’t think their use is compatible with driving.”

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2 comments on “Mobile phone dangers: even hands-free can be hazardous for drivers

  1. chris owen April 3, 2017 11:52 am

    Funny how pilots seem to cope. Does Dr. Cole think a pilots performance is impaired when making a call to air traffic control ?

  2. Eric Hayman September 25, 2017 10:04 am

    Chris – when talking to a control tower, pilots are talking about the job in hand – not being distracted about family or other matters nothing to do with flying. And what they are talking about is essential, not irrelevances to flying the plane.

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