Look Mum, No Hands(-free)!

The new Road Safety Bill to be passed in a matter of weeks could ban total use of mobile phones in cars, meaning even hands-free car kits would become illegal.

A recent study by the University of Utah has shown that itís not the holding of a mobile phone which is distracting to drivers, it’s the conversation itself. The study found that driving whilst talking on a mobile phone is just as dangerous as drink driving.

Earlier this month a lorry driver was sentenced to four years in prison and banned from driving for seven years after killing a 23 year-old girl on the M3 whilst he played with his new phone.

Both the Utah research and high profile death have reignited the debate on mobile phones in the car, instigating various safety organisations to call for a total ban of the use of mobiles in vehicles.

Brake, the road safety charity, has submitted possible amendments to the Road Safety Bill including banning all mobiles and "interactive communication devices", stating "We want hands-free phones to be banned too. It is the conversation, not the holding of the phone, that is the major factor in causing the danger." Brake has also called for tougher penalties for drivers who flagrantly break the law, proposing penalty points be increased from 3 to 6, and fines from £60 to £1000.

The driver of the 7.5 tonne lorry involved in the M3 crash was not breaking current mobile phone law. John Payne, who had admitted causing death by dangerous driving, told his driver’s mate that he wanted to find out how to use the phone, and started punching numbers on the keypad. His new Motorola handset was seated in a cradle.

Sentencing Judge Michael Brodrick, said: "Anyone wanting an illustration of using mobile phones in a vehicle only has to look at the facts of this case. You struck a vehicle driving a 7.5 ton lorry. It ran over the back of it and it was crushed and became half its length and unrecognisable. This was because your attention was distracted. You did not see the signs ahead. You did not see the queues ahead."

The University of Utah research showed that both handheld and hands-free mobile phones impaired driving equally, with no significant difference in the degree of impairment. That "calls into question driving regulations that prohibited handheld mobile phones and permit hands-free cell phones."

Participants in the study "drove" a PatrolSim driving simulator four times: once each while undistracted, using a handheld mobile phone, using a hands-free mobile phone and while intoxicated to the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level after drinking vodka and orange juice. Participants followed a computer generated pace car that braked sporadically to simulate normal traffic conditions.

Compared with undistracted drivers the participants who talked on either handheld or hands-free mobile phones had 9 percent slower braking reactions, and showed 24 percent more deviation in following distance as their attention switched between driving and talking. They were also 19 percent slower to return to normal speed after braking and were more likely to have an accident. Three participants drove into the back of the pace car. All three were talking on mobile phones. None were drunk.

Psychology Professor David Strayer, the head of the Utah research, said "Just like you put yourself and other people at risk when you drive drunk, you put yourself and others at risk when you use a cell phone and drive. The level of impairment is very similar."

The study backed up previous research by Strayer showing that hands-free mobile phones are just as distracting as handheld mobile phones because the conversation itself, not just the physical use of a handheld phone, distracts drivers from possible hazards. This has been christened Inattention Blindness.

"We used an eye tracker to try to see what they were looking at while talking on the phone," Strayer said, "The measurements show that they simply aren’t picking up information that’s right in front of them, whether it’s as mundane as a street sign or even a person or child on the side of road."

This study agrees with research conducted in Australia last year where the phone records of 456 drivers needing hospital treatment after an accident were scrutinsed. The chances of crashing were found to increase up to four times with mobile phones used in the 10 minutes leading to a crash regardless of whether a hands-free kit was used or not.

A RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) spokesman said: "This is exactly what we have said and have known for some time. We hope that the people who callously think that their phone call is more important than somebody’s life will get the message eventually when they see more and more research like this."

He said the current ban on using hand-held mobiles while driving should be extended to hands-free phones.

Contrary to popular belief the effects of talking hands-free are not the same as other possible in-car disturbances. Participants of the Utah study `displayed no similar distractions when talking to passengers, listening to the radio/CD or audio books.

"If you are engaging in a conversation with a passenger," says Rae Tyson of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "the passenger has some situational awareness, whereas a person on the phone has no idea what you are dealing with on the road."

Research showed that driver distractions of all types are a factor in probably 25 to 30 percent of crashes.

With that in mind Cathy Keeler, head of campaigns at Brake warned ìCompared with listening to the radio or talking to a passenger, there is significantly more impairment when using a hands-free kit. Mobile phone conversations in a car are often business calls that require attention. Theyíre not just chit-chat.

"Clearly the safest course of action is to not use a cell phone while driving." Strayerís report concluded.

The new Road Safety Bill is due to be passed by Parliament on October 9th.