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MOBILE PHONES: Has the time come to hit 'reject' on all in-car mobile phone use?

Date: 17 August 2010

With experts agreeing that it's better not to accept hands-free calls for safety reasons, maybe fleets should consider banning the practice outright. Rachel Burgess reports

Hands-free mobile phone use while driving remains legal, after hand-held use was banned in 2007. But is it safe?

Research from the University of Utah earlier this year shows that the performance of 97.5% of drivers is noticeably impaired when using a hands-free mobile phone. They took 20% longer to hit the brakes when needed, in simulated driving conditions, while following distances increased by 30% as they failed to keep pace with traffic.

A previous study commissioned by Direct Line Insurance and conducted by the Transport Research Laboratory found that reaction distances at 70mph was worse when using a hand-held mobile phone compared with a hands-free. But both reactions were worse than if the driver were at the maximum drink drive limit (see diagram below).

Ending hands-free

Many companies are catching on to the dangers of hands-free use and have introduced company-wide bans. Firms such as BP, Sainsburys, Virgin Mobile, Pirelli, Michelin and 3M (see 'Case Study', right) all prohibit any phone use.

No doubt, this proaction is largely linked to a firm's legal responsibilities. Duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 means companies are liable to be held accountable if their employees use a hand-held mobile or are prosecuted for driving without due care and attention when caught using a hands-free phone.

So how does using a phone disrupt driving? Graham Hole, a senior lecturer at University of Sussex specialising in the psychology of driving, says active engagement in conversation is the problem (as opposed to passive listening to information, like when listening to the radio, for example, which does not impair performance). "Speaking over a phone is mentally demanding - a lack of non-verbal communication makes it harder to maintain the conversation and drivers adjust their conversation according to the state of the traffic," he says. He adds that conversations often involve visual imagery which could then compete with the real world for attention. Phone use also reduces eye movements - never a good thing while driving.

Despite this, Hole predicts in-vehicle distraction will get worse with the proliferation of in-car technology, including satnav, emailing and internet access, warnings generated by collision-avoidance systems, lane-departure systems, and traffic flow information to name a few. "The technology of 4G enables truly mobile phone access," he adds.

Hole says that computer giant Microsoft aims to turn cars into mobile offices. Indeed, telematics development is considered a lucrative marketplace for both software companies and car manufacturers.

Add all this temptation to motorists' perception that they are better than average drivers and you have a battle on your hands. Hole says if a true 'mobile office' comes to fruition it would be very hard to ensure people only used it when the car was stationary. "Trusting individuals' common sense is not going to work. You would need explicit control measures like randomly checking phone logs to enforce such measures."

Rise or decline?

Rick Wood, RoSPA's training and quality assurance manager, says research shows drivers are four times more likely to crash if they are using a mobile phone, even it is hands-free.

However, despite studies suggesting that this is the case, there is always a paradox. Research in February 2010 by the US highway agency found crashes are in decline despite mobile phone use. In four states where hand-held phones were banned, there was no steeper decrease in crash rates. One explanation was that other "distracting behaviours decrease as drivers expand use of mobiles", which means that increased useof a mobile phone simply replaces other sources of distraction. The study concluded that "the increased crash risk due to mobile use could have been overestimated and might not differ significantly from the risk of other distracting behaviours".

But Kenneth Bowling, the managing director at Driving Risk Management, says: "When a business driver is in his or her car, they are at work and the focus should be fully on their driving. After all, how many of us would accept their bank cashier or GP chatting on the phone while carrying out their work?"

It is down to fleet managers to make a sensible decision on this debate. But with duty of care responsibilities alone, it's an issue that can't be ignored.