There is a misleading impression that hands-free [mobile] 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.”[1]

As the government considers calls for a complete ban on hands-free mobile use while driving, we look at the impact of mobile phone use on driving and whether such a move is necessary to challenge current attitudes and make the roads safer for everyone.

Key statistics

Since 2003 it has been an offence to use a hand-held mobile phone or other hand-held device while driving[2]. However, the offence as presently drafted only applies to hand-held devices and hands-free phones are not currently included, due to perceived enforcement difficulties.

It is uncontroversial that driving while using a mobile phone impairs the ability to drive safely and increases the risk of a collision[3]. In 2017 there were 773 casualties, including 43 fatalities and 135 serious injuries, in road traffic collisions where a driver using a mobile phone was a contributory factor in the crash[4].

Yet while the number of people killed or seriously injured in such incidents has increased since 2011, the rate of enforcement regarding phone use has fallen by more than two-thirds over the same period[5].

In March 2019 the Transport Select Committee launched an inquiry into road safety, inviting views on the government’s current approach and suggestions on what interventions would be most effective at reducing the number and severity of road traffic collisions. Several submissions highlighted the issue of driving while using a mobile phone as an area of concern and indeed, on the face of it, the statistics support the concerns.

Impact of hands-free devices

Although the offence is framed around the use of a hand-held device, research shows that using any mobile phone or other device while driving—whether hand-held or not—is a distraction that is detrimental to a driver’s ability to drive safely. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has said that drivers who use a mobile phone[6]:

  • are much less aware of what’s happening on the road around them;
  • fail to see road signs;
  • fail to maintain proper lane position and steady speed;
  • are more likely to "tailgate" the vehicle in front;
  • react more slowly, take longer to brake and longer to stop;
  • are more likely to enter unsafe gaps in traffic; and
  • feel more stressed and frustrated.

Indeed, a 2016 study by scientists at the University of Sussex[7] found speaking on a mobile can slow reactions times even more than when at the legal blood alcohol limit and that the risk of crashing is increased four-fold when drivers engage in a hands-free phone conversation compared to those who drive without distraction.

The same study also debunked the common misconception that talking on a hands-free mobile phone is no different from talking to a passenger or listening to the radio. The evidence is clear that it is more mentally demanding to hold a conversation on the phone than with a passenger. Driving is a complex skill utilising many mental processes and different areas of the brain and more cognitive resources are taken up when having such a conversation[8].

There is therefore an argument that the current laws are giving the misleading impression that hands-free use is safe, despite it potentially creating the same risks of a collision.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “While mobile phones are a vital part of modern life and business, drivers must always use them safely and responsibly.

Being distracted by a mobile phone while driving is dangerous and puts people’s lives at risk. The law is clear that anyone driving dangerously is committing a criminal offence.”

Road safety charity Brake reiterated its ongoing support of the proposals, saying:

"One moment's distraction from a phone can cause a lifetime of suffering so our advice to drivers is simple - when you're driving, make sure your phone is on silent and placed out of sight and out of reach."

Tougher penalties, tougher attitudes?

Since March 2017, motorists caught using a phone have faced incurring six points on their licence and a £200 fine – up from the previous penalty of three points and £100. If the matter comes before a Court the judge 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. In addition to being an offence in itself, use of a mobile phone or other hand-held device can be a contributory factor in the charging of other offences that are subject to much higher penalties, such as careless/inconsiderate or dangerous driving and, in the most serious cases where death occurs, causing death by careless or dangerous driving.

Yet while the penalties have toughened over recent years, mobile phone use while driving is still troublingly widespread and the problem shows no signs of abating.

As smartphones have increased in popularity and functionality over the last decade, so has the number of drivers using their phone behind the wheel. While it used to be just sending a text or making a phone call that would lead to unsafe driving, nowadays taking a photo, sending an email and posting on social media are all prevalent.

Between 2014 and 2016, the number of drivers who admitted to using a mobile phone at the wheel increased from 8% to 31%[9]. Worryingly, there is also a softening of attitudes towards mobile phone use when driving, with 14% believing it acceptable to take a call, up from 7% in 2014.

Perhaps a new, stricter stance on all mobile phone usage, including hands-free, supported by a public road safety campaign is needed to send a message to drivers that such behaviour is as unacceptable as drink-driving.

Next steps

MPs have recommended the Government should explore options for extending the ban and a public consultation on the proposal is due to be published by the end of 2019.

The evidence is clear: mobile phone use whilst driving is dangerous, even on hands-free. Appreciating this and adhering to a no-mobile phone policy in any circumstances whilst driving will save lives.