Hands free as distracting as hand held phones – new motoring research claims

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Researchers at the University of Sussex have concluded that motorists who use hands free phones are just as likely to become distracted as those who use a hand held mobile phone whilst driving.

They discovered that a part of the brain which is normally used to watch the road is also used by individuals to visually imagine what they are talking about.

The study involved 20 male and 40 female volunteers who took part in video tests whilst sitting in a car seat behind a steering wheel. One group of volunteers were allowed to "drive" undistracted whilst another two groups heard a male voice from a loudspeaker 3ft (0.9m) away.

Those who were distracted by the voice engaging them in conversation took just under a second longer to respond to events, such as a pedestrian stepping off the pavement, an oncoming car on the wrong side of the road or an unexpected vehicle parked at a junction.

The study showed that asking a simple question – such as, "Where did you leave the blue file?"- during phone conversations could mean a driver concentrates on an area four times smaller than normal, because their brain is imagining the room where they left the file, instead of checking for hazards in front of them.

Dr Graham Hole, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex, said the research laid bare the "popular misconception that using a mobile phone while driving is safe as long as the driver uses a hands-free phone".

"The problem is enforceability – it’s very difficult for the police to tell if someone’s using a hands-free phone," he said.

"But on balance, I think the law should be changed to get the right message across and make it absolutely clear that any use of a mobile phone while driving is hazardous. Other studies have suggested that phone conversations in a car are more off-putting than listening to the radio or talking to a passenger.”

A passenger chatting in a car is less distracting, the researchers argue, because both stop talking when the driver needs to concentrate.

The Department for Transport is currently considering increasing penalties for the offence of using a hand-held mobile phone whilst driving, from £100 to £150 for all drivers, a rise of 3 to 4 penalty points for non-HGV drivers and a doubling – from 3 to 6 points – for those committing the offence whilst operating a HGV.

The latest research findings support calls from campaigners – including road charity, RoadPeace – to consider a total ban on all phones whilst driving.

Jeremy Sirrell, a partner and motoring offences legal expert with Palmers, said: “The law currently allows motorists to use hands-free phones, sat navs and two-way radios, but it is important to be aware that if you are involved in an accident and the police consider that you were distracted by such technology and, as a result, you were not fully in control of your vehicle, you can, nevertheless, be penalised under existing laws, which include driving without due care and attention or dangerous driving. Whether the law will, in time, be amended to include outlawing the use of hands-free phones, is highly debatable. In the meantime, it will be left to the judgement of individuals to decide whether they feel in control of their vehicle whilst using hands-free phones.”

Palmers’ expert legal team is able to provide advice and support with issues relating to motoring offences including incidents involving the use of mobile phones. For more information, please contact us.