Broadcast: News items

The only ‘safe’ phone in a car is one that's switched off

Research reveals that using a hands-free phone is just as distracting as using a handheld mobile phone

The Government should consider banning the use of hands-free devices while driving, a Transport Select Committee report published today will recommend based on research by psychologists from the University of Sussex and the Open University.

Studies by Dr Graham Hole and Dr Gemma Briggs add to a large body of research that demonstrates driving while using a hands-free device is just as dangerous as using a hand-held mobile phone.

The researchers found that having a conversation which requires the driver to use their visual imagination creates competition for the brain’s processing capacity, which results in drivers missing road hazards that they might otherwise have spotted. Distracted drivers suffered from ‘visual tunnelling.’ They tended to focus their eyes on a small central region directly ahead of them. This led them to miss hazards in their peripheral vision.

Dr Graham Hole, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sussex, said:

“A popular misconception is that using a mobile phone while driving is safe as long as the driver uses a hands-free phone. Our research shows drivers are distracted by phone conversations, regardless of whether they are hand-held or hands-free. Because their attention is focused on the conversation, a driver will try to cope by reducing the mental demands of the driving. They do this by looking around less so they are less likely to spot emerging hazards, like pedestrians, especially in their peripheral vision. They also over-rely on their expectations about what is likely to happen next - which causes problems when something unexpected happens.”

Dr Gemma Briggs, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the Open University said:

“A driver using a phone – hand-held or hands-free – is four times more likely to be involved in a collision. Distracted drivers can be unaware of what their eyes are looking at, so they fail to see a hazard, even when looking directly at it. The current mobile phone laws are outdated and not fit for purpose. They also, by implication, suggest that hands-free phone use is a safe alternative to hand-held use despite compelling research evidence, including our own, which disputes this. As such, the law around what constitutes ‘phone use’ and how it negatively impacts on a driver’s attention needs clarification.”

Last updated: Tuesday, 13 August 2019