Is it time to ban hands-free mobile phones while driving?

A ban on any mobile phone use while driving should be standard for young drivers – but should it extend to all motorists? Image from shutterstock.com

If you find it hard to put your mobile phone away, you’re not alone – young adults check their mobile phones around 60 times a day. Worryingly, drivers continue to use mobile phones despite the evidence that it is distracting while driving.

A widely cited 2005 Australian study reported the risk of crashing while using a hands-free mobile phone when driving is more or less equal to the risk of using a hand-held phone. This study essentially replicated earlier Canadian research, and is well-accepted by road safety researchers and policymakers.

These studies are used to support road safety strategies, enforcement, education and public advertising programs. Most jurisdictions have made hand-held phone use illegal for drivers. In some graduated driver licensing systems, it’s illegal for learners and drivers on P-plates to use hands-free mobile phones.

A ban on any mobile phone use while driving should be standard for young drivers. The question is whether the ban on hands-free mobile phone use should extend to all drivers.

How do mobile phones affect driving?

The road transport system is dynamic and subject to frequent changes. Drivers will modify their vehicle speed by accelerating, decelerating and braking to account for speed changes by a vehicle ahead, or will make steering corrections to stay on their course and avoid potential hazards. Drivers also develop habits of scanning of the road ahead, the environs to the side, the traffic behind, and the indicators and instruments within the vehicle.

Using a mobile phone affects driving performance in a range of ways, most notably by diverting a driver’s attention to the conversation. It also disrupts the habitual cycle of monitoring behaviours involved in driving. These habitual tasks involve thinking about the what, when, and how aspects of decision-making during driving, as well as visual scanning (where you look, and for how long), the movements involved in vehicle control (harder to do when you’re swiping and selecting on a touch screen or holding a phone), and managing the content of discussions during a call.

Talking on a mobile phone while driving disrupts decision-making. Image from shutterstock.com

Remote conversations are usually goal-directed – a telephone call is made, or received, with a purpose in mind – and usually require more concentrated attention than in-vehicle conversations with passengers. When emotions are aroused by the conversation, then driving performance can be further compromised.

The result? Loss of situational awareness, delayed or missed detection of information and events, impaired reaction times, and mind-wandering.

Certainly, drivers continue to be able to monitor the roadway and surrounding environment while talking on a mobile phone, but they tend to concentrate their gaze on the road in front and reduce their visual scanning both vertically and horizontally. They also check mirrors and the speedometer less frequently. Often the driver slows, and there can be divergence from the driving path and intrusion into other lanes or onto road shoulders.

If hazardous events take place, it is the drivers who are not talking on a mobile phone who are able to direct more visual attention, and continue to direct their attention, to the hazardous situation after the events have occurred, aiding decision-making and faster reaction times.

What does the latest evidence say?

Last year, the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study in Virginia collected 43,000 hours and more than three million kilometres of driving data under real-world driving conditions. The analysis of these data gave a surprising result: talking or listening to a hand-held mobile phone increased the risk of a near-miss or crash by 1.3 times, but this result was not statistically different than normal driving.

Other behaviours did increase the risk during driving, in fact markedly so:

  • reaching for moving objects increased the risk by nine times
  • looking at an object external to the vehicle increased the risk by 3.7 times
  • reading while driving increased the risk by 3.4 times
  • applying makeup increased the risk by three times
  • dialling a hand-held mobile phone increased the risk by 2.8 times.

So, while this study found that talking on a mobile phone (whether hand-held, voice-activated or hands-free) did not significantly increase the crash risk, the actions the phone user took to set up the call did increase the risk. Reaching for the phone, dialling a number, and fitting a headset or ear piece increased the risk of a near-miss or crash by five to six times.

While talking on the phone may not significantly increase your risk of a crash or near miss, setting up the call does. Image from shutterstock.com

What is not clear from the literature is the impact of the duration of the call and what the cumulative effects of reduced situation awareness has on the driver’s performance.

In another 2012 study of phone use and crash risk, researcher Robert Young reported no evidence for any increased risk associated with the use of a mobile phone during driving – hands-free or otherwise. But this contradicts the earlier Australian study which had reported a fourfold increase in risk of crashing. Young’s study drew significant debate, from researchers in Australia and the United States, but no agreed position has resulted.

The results from the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study remain uncontested. After all, in this very large research project it was the actual, real-time behaviour of drivers which was observed, rather than an inference of phone use while driving from phone records and driver recollections.

It wouldn’t be easy

A ban on hands-free mobile phone use while driving would place a heavy responsibility of police to enforce such a measure. It is unclear how this could be done successfully, and be sufficient to support a prosecution: was a driver using a hands-free phone actually “on the phone”, or just talking with a passenger or to themselves?

There are apps being developed to disable phones during driving, but these rely on a driver choosing to activate them.

The ban would, however, send a clear message to drivers that “driving is for driving” – not for chatting, organising social events, holding business meetings, texting, reading, or any of the diverse in-vehicle activities that can divert attention and affect safe driving.

Such a ban could be accompanied by an educational campaign spanning schools, driver training, public advertising, and traffic offender management.

We need to make it clear that if you wish to make or take a call when driving, pull over and stop. And for a simpler, easier tip: put the phone in the boot of the vehicle until you reach your destination.