• Drivers caught using their mobile behind the wheel now face heavy fines and penalty points
  • University of Sussex research reveals drivers using a hands-free phone are just as distracted as those holding it in their hand
  • Campaigners are now proposing the introduction of a law, which bans the use of hands-free phones in cars

In the UK, it's illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone, for whatever reason, whilst driving – even if you're stuck in a queue or at traffic lights. Having a conversation on your mobile can be incredibly distracting – and if you’re holding your phone to your ear, you'll only have one hand on the wheel, giving you less control of your vehicle.

As you'll have seen in the news recently, if you're caught using a hand-held device when driving a car or motorbike in the UK, you could receive an automatic fixed penalty notice – usually resulting in a fine of £200 and six penalty points on your driving licence. This, in turn, can have an effect on your car insurance premium too. So, to avoid expensive fines and getting points, many people have turned to hands-free devices instead.

According to the UK government website, drivers are allowed to use hands-free phones, as well as other in-vehicle devices like sat navs and two-way radios, whilst driving. But, the police can still pull you over if they think you're distracted and not in control of your vehicle.

Now, researchers at the University of Sussex have claimed that driving while talking on a hands-free phone can be just as distracting as talking on a hand-held mobile. 

Their research has found that conversations can cause the driver to create a mental picture of what they are talking about. For example, when a driver was talking on a hands-free phone and they were asked a simple question such as, "Where did you leave the blue file?", this caused the driver to visualise which file was being asked for, 'mentally searched' a remembered room, and even imagined the facial expression of the person they were talking to.

All this visual imagery competed for the mental processing resources the driver needed to understand what was in front of them on the road. 

Dr Graham Hole, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex, said the research laid bare the "popular misconception that using a mobile phone while driving is safe as long as the driver uses a hands-free phone.

"I think the law should be changed to get the right message across and make it absolutely clear that any use of a mobile phone while driving is hazardous."

Dr Hole is not alone in his assertions. Kevin Clinton, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said he was not surprised by the study's findings and also called for a law banning the use of hands-free phones in cars.

"Sadly, people continue to lose their lives on our roads in crashes caused by drivers who are distracted because they use a mobile phone," he said.

"This can so easily be avoided by all drivers switching off their phones while driving, and only checking messages once they have stopped in a safe place."