Although using a hand-held mobile phone is now generally illegal in many developed countries, hands-free use is not. This creates the perception that hands-free is safer and less distracting than hand-held use. However research [1] shows that it is the call itself that is distracting, meaning that having a phone conversation while driving, whether hands-free or not, is dangerous.

Despite the fact that the risks around using a mobile phone whilst driving have been heavily featured in the media for those countries that banned hand-held use, it appears that many have not been discouraged from using their handset at the wheel. The road safety charity, Brake, and Direct Line insurance carried out a joint survey in 2014 in which 45% of participants admitted to having spoken on a mobile phone whilst driving. The survey also revealed that three in ten had sent or read texts; and one in eight had used smart applications.

It is clear that using a hand-held device to text or call involves a physical distraction such as removing a hand from the wheel; however the cognitive distraction of being on a hands-free call still is often overlooked by many. Multi-tasking is mentally demanding; it is proven to reduce levels of concentration and impair the ability to make decisions effectively. Studies [2] show that drivers using a mobile phone are slower at recognising and reacting to hazards, with a 37% reduction in spatial processing in the part of the brain used for driving.

The temptation to use a mobile phone is arguably higher than ever, considering the wide range of applications that are now easily available on your mobile device, and the resultant rise in notifications that pop up on your screen. Even the most cautious drivers can be distracted by a call or text. That split-second lapse in concentration while you check the notification could easily result in an accident.

In fact, a study carried out by Monash University in Malaysia demonstrated that the time young drivers spent with their eyes off the road increased by a staggering 400% when sending and receiving text messages.

Driving while distracted can result in a wide range of errors, some of which may be fatal. These include:

  • A lack of awareness of surrounding road users and potential hazards;
  • Failing to see road signs and warnings;
  • Struggling to maintain the recommended safe speed;
  • Failing to keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front; and
  • Poor lane discipline and switching lanes without indicating.

Considering all of these, it should perhaps come as no surprise that research[3] indicates that using the phone whilst driving can make drivers four times more likely to crash. Hands-free may be legal, however if a law enforcement officer believes the driver to be sufficiently distracted or out of control, they can be charged with careless or dangerous driving, resulting in a fine or even a prison sentence.

Safe Driving Tips

  • Turn off your phone before starting your journey;
  • Take regular breaks and use the time to check messages or make calls;
  • Avoid using your mobile phone even with hands-free technology;
  • If you need to urgently make a call, find a safe place to park first;
  • Don’t call or text someone you know is driving;
  • If you call someone and they are driving, ask them to call back after their journey, when the car is parked in a safe place; and
  • Remember the only appropriate time to use a mobile phone is in an emergency, to dial the emergency services.

[1] National Safety Council, “Understanding the Distracted Brain: Why Driving While Using Hands-Free Cell Phones is Risky Behavior.” (2012) Appendix A, Studies Comparing Hands-Free and Handheld Cell Phones.

[2] Just, M. A., Keller, T. A., & Cynkar, J. A. “A decrease in brain activation associated with driving when listening to someone speak.” (2008)  Brain Research, 1205, 70-80.

[3] USDOT, NHTSA, “National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey: Report to Congress.” (2008) Pages 24-26.

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