It seems as if it was only yesterday that we were being told the importance of using hands-free phones — the legal method that allows drivers to make a call without holding a device.
But now, the Transport Select Committee has issued a report calling on the Government to explore options ‘for extending the ban on hand-held devices to hands-free phones’.
Here, Guy Walters explains what’s driving the hands-free U-turn…
The Government is being urged to extend the ban on drivers using phones in the car to include hands-free devices by the Transport Select Committee
Is hands-free as risky as holding a phone?
According to road experts, using a hands-free phone is as distracting as using a hand-held one.
‘Drivers remain dangerously distracted even after they have hung up,’ says Dr Gemma Briggs, a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University, who gave evidence to the Transport Select Committee.
It’s a view echoed throughout the scientific community.
One study, by the Transport Research Laboratory, has shown motorists perform worse when using hands-free than when they are drunk.
According to Dr Graham Hole, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex: ‘There’s been a huge amount of research on mobile phone usage in cars in the past 20 years, and it’s rare to find consensus so strong in science.
‘It all — including my own 2016 study — says the same thing: there is no difference between using hands-free and using a hand-held phone.’
Why is it dangerous?
Even when using hands-free, your mind is essentially elsewhere.
‘When you have a phone conversation with someone who is not physically present, you tend to create mental images of where they are, what they are discussing and what they are up to,’ Dr Briggs told the Committee.
‘The mental resources required to create those mental images are also required for accurate perception of the driving situation.
‘If the driver is using a hands-free phone, their attention is not as distracted, but is still constantly switched.’
Crucially, the mental resources needed to drive are also being used to have a conversation on the phone.
Using a hands-free phone is as distracting as using a hand-held one, according to road experts as your mind is still essentially elsewhere
How much more likely are you to crash?
Significantly more likely. Driving when using a hands-free kit is regarded as being as dangerous as driving at the drink-drive limit, where you are four times more likely to have an accident.
‘When you use a phone, you make a choice to significantly impair your driving,’ says Dr Hole.
‘And you’ve obviously increased the risk for the other people on the road who haven’t been given that choice.’
How deadly can it be?
There are no specific statistics for accidents caused by the use of hands-free phones.
But there are figures for accidents where the use of a mobile phone was a contributory factor.
In 2017, the most recent year recorded, 43 people were killed and 730 were either seriously or slightly injured on Britain’s roads.
In 2014, seven-year-old Seth Dixon was killed while posting an envelope through a letter box opposite his house by a driver using her hands-free phone.
As the driver was not technically breaking the law because she was using a hands-free kit, she was charged with the lesser offence of careless driving and was fined.
Seth’s mother, Alice, told the BBC: ‘I feel at the time the research wasn’t there for us to understand the distraction of using a phone hands-free.
‘By the time of the inquest, the research had come out. People need to recognise this and change the way they behave. At the time [of the accident] most of us thought hands-free was acceptable.’
Isn’t chatting with a passenger as bad?
Apparently not. As the person in the car is in your environment, you do not need to ‘conjure them up’ in your brain.
Passengers can also look at road conditions and, as the car approaches a hazard, are likely to slow or stop their conversation accordingly.
What about having the radio on?
‘We did a hazard perception test with people listening to an audiobook and there was no impairment in [driving] performance,’ says Dr Hole.
Although people tend to get wrapped up in a good story, or a piece of music on the radio, it appears these are nothing like as distracting as a phone call.
Aren’t fighting kids worse?
‘Nobody is saying that there aren’t other distractions for drivers,’ says Dr Hole, ‘and some distraction is inevitable. However, you have to draw a distinction between those that are self-inflicted — such as phone calls — and those that aren’t.’
What does the current law say?
The use of mobile phones while driving is contained in — wait for it — the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) (Amendment) (No 4) Regulations 2003 (SI 2695).
They stipulate that drivers using a hand-held device, when that device is making or receiving a call, or performing any other interactive communication function such as sending a text or checking a social media feed, face a Fixed Penalty Notice of £200, and six penalty points.
If the matter comes before a court, it can choose to impose a disqualification and/or a maximum fine of up to £1,000 for car drivers and £2,500 for HGV and bus drivers.
Drivers can still use a car’s touchscreen or a hands-free, but, if their driving reflects a deficit in concentration in any way, the penalty is between three and nine points, plus a fine of up to £2,500.
MPs want to make mobile phone use of any kind while driving ‘as socially unacceptable as drink-driving’
Are there any loopholes?
Yes, the most notable being that the hand-held phone needs to have been used for a call or ‘interactive communication’ in order for its use to be an offence.
In July, Ramsey Barreto, 51, of Ruislip, North West London, used this to his advantage after being prosecuted for using his phone to film an accident he was driving past.
Since he was using his phone as a camera, his lawyers successfully argued that the law on phones did not apply to him.
But this behaviour is, of course, not recommended.
Can I use my phone as a sat nav?
Yes, so long as the phone is not hand-held. But be aware of the fate of Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator magazine, who landed in court after he was spotted using his phone by police.
While he was at a red light, Nelson had picked up his mobile after it had fallen from its cradle and, as he was looking at the map on the screen, police pulled him over.
The court informed Nelson holding the phone was permissible, but if he ‘used’ it by looking at it, then that was an offence.
As the map application on his smartphone was in the act of ‘an interactive communication function by transmitting and receiving data’ then, technically, Nelson was indeed committing an offence under the 2003 legislation.
And so his legal challenge failed.
What do MPs want to do next?
As well as wanting to make mobile phone use while driving ‘as socially unacceptable as drink-driving’, the MPs want to crack down on hands-free usage.
Lilian Greenwood MP, chair of the Transport Committee, says: ‘There is also a misleading impression that hands-free use is safe.
‘The reality is that any use of a phone distracts from a driver’s ability to pay full attention, and the Government should consider extending the ban to reflect this.’
Is any legislation likely to pass soon?
The Committee acknowledged that there would be ‘practical challenges’ to criminalising hands-free devices, as well as enforcing any new legislation.
And with the current state of Parliament and Brexit looming, it seems an unlikely priority.
What should I do to stay safe?
You must never use a hand-held phone when driving and should consider not using your phone at all at the wheel, even hands-free.
As Shadow Transport Minister Daniel Zeichner MP says: ‘Using your phone means your full attention is not on the road.
‘There’s no phone call or text that’s more important than killing or seriously injuring someone.’