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MPs in the UK are looking to ban hands-free and hand-held phones within vehicles as they believe current laws are “misleading” and are “essentially the same” as being at the legal limit of alcohol consumption behind the wheel.

This follows the Transport Committee’s report this morning which focuses on the growing concern around road safety and drivers’ attention. Ultimately, the use of a mobile phone while driving is extremely unsafe and puts both drivers and pedestrians at risk. 

However, TRL’s Chief Scientist Shaun Helman believes that although the use of a mobile device while controlling a vehicle is something that must be considered by those seeking to reduce death and injury on the road, it is a debate that consistently misses the important points.

“A debate about hands-free and hand-held phone use is welcome, but if we want to improve road safety and stop killing people it completely misses the point,” he says. “TRL research published in 2002, using our driving simulator also showed quite clearly that the accuracy and speed of drivers’ responses to sudden events on the road ahead were adversely affected by conversation-like tasks, and that crucially it didn’t matter if the conversation was hands-free, or on a hand-held phone.”

Helman thinks that it is vital that we define misleading phrases such as ‘hands-free’ and ‘hand-held.’ The idea that you no longer have your mobile phone in your hands does not mean that you will be more focused on the road, as there are many types of distraction such as visual and cognitive functions. 

“The phrase ‘hand-held’ misleads us by making us think that it is the ‘holding’ a device that is the worst thing to be doing with the hands while driving,” he continues. “It isn’t; there are many other ways in which a driver can manipulate a device and which are much more likely to cause a crash – texting, browsing social media, scrolling through app functions and so-on. And other types of distraction tend to be present when manipulating a device; looking at the device, thinking about what one is writing, what someone is saying on social media, or which song to choose next. All of this has been shown to distract drivers.”

Official statistics show that in 2017 there were 773 casualties; including 43 deaths and 135 serious injuries, in collisions where a driver using a mobile phone was a contributory factor.

The figures show that the number of people killed or seriously injured has risen steadily since 2011, however alarmingly the rate of enforcement has dropped by more than two-thirds since then.

However, what concerns me the most is the ignorance of our industry, which doesn’t seem to question the significant distractions of new infotainment systems. If using a hands-free device is a distraction, how about the large screens plastered across our dashboard? Hopefully, this is something that will be addressed soon. 

IAM RoadSmart says control of hands-free mobile phone ‘long overdue’ – but enforcement will be near impossible without new tech and more police. It believes that there need to be much stricter controls on the use of hands-free mobile phones in cars, which remain a major distraction to the task of driving.

However, the charity said that it cannot see how any ban can be enforced, with a lack of police numbers meaning drivers feel they won’t get caught.

“Clarifying the law so that any use of a phone that involves holding it or placing in the driver’s lap is made illegal should be a top government priority. It doesn’t matter if it’s for music selection or social media updates, it all increases risk behind the wheel particularly for new drivers,” said Neil Greig, IAM RoadSmart director of policy and research.

“New laws and tougher penalties are welcome but will only work if the fear of being caught is increased. This can be done through more high-profile policing but could also given an immediate boost by issuing clear guidelines for the use of mobile speed cameras to prosecute any driver they spot with a phone to their ear.

“The final piece in the jigsaw for IAM RoadSmart would be a revamping of the mobile phone awareness course with every first offender being sent on one to see and feel the real impact of their behaviour.”

He added: “Technology is changing however, and with the introduction of call blocking while in motion and other such measures, we would support the legislative change to ban hands-free to match hand-held.”


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