Do hands-free phones distract drivers?

The latest research suggest hands-free devices are dangerous 

4 minute read

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Although it's not against the law to use a hands-free phone while driving, research reveals they're just as distracting. 

  • Drivers caught using their mobile behind the wheel now face heavy fines and penalty points
  • Research shows drivers using a hands-free phone are as distracted as those using hand-held devices 
  • Campaigners are now proposing the introduction of a law, which bans the use of hands-free phones in cars

New research says hands-free devices are a distraction to drivers 

In the UK, it's illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving – even if you're stuck in a queue or at traffic lights. 

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 points on your driving licence. This can impact your car insurance premium too. So, to avoid expensive fines, many people have turned to hands-free devices.

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, while 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 found driving while talking on a hands-free phone can be just as distracting as talking on a hand-held mobile. 


Why are hands-free devices dangerous? 

Their research found conversations can cause the driver to create a mental picture of what they're talking about. For example, when a driver was talking on a hands-free phone and they were asked a simple question like 'where did you leave the blue file?' the driver began 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. 


Should hands-free be banned?

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 isn't alone. Kevin Clinton, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said he wasn't 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.'


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