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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 December 2007, 13:35 GMT
Is driving with hands-free kit dangerous?
WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers...

Driver
Phones distract drivers say experts

A company is banning its drivers from using hands-free mobile phone devices, citing research that says using them is as dangerous as drink driving. Is that right?

It's the UK's largest transport company and from January FirstGroup is banning its 135,000-strong workforce from speaking hands-free on the phone while behind the wheel.

Driving with mobile phones was banned in the UK in 2003, but it's not illegal to use a hands-free kit.

FirstGroup says it's banning the devices in response to the "growing body of evidence" against them. In particular, research that suggests it's easier to drive drunk than to drive while using a phone, even when it's hands-free. Is that right?

THE ANSWER
Research has found drivers using hands-free devices have slower reaction times than those under the influence of alcohol

According to a study by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) drivers are four times more likely to have an accident while using any mobile phone.

Reaction times were slower than those under the influence of alcohol and it found the risk of an accident was raised for up to 10 minutes after a hands-free call had been made, suggesting a driver remained preoccupied long after a call ended.

"Drivers found it easier to drive drunk than to drive while using a phone, even when it was hands-free," says a TRL spokesman.

Constant demand

"Driving behaviour while talking on a phone is not only worse than normal driving, it can also be described as dangerous. Drivers need to be strongly discouraged from engaging in any phone use while behind the wheel."

An earlier TRL report also concluded drivers using mobile phones, including those with hands-free equipment, were also less able to maintain a constant speed and found it more difficult to keep a safe distance from the car in front.

In the tests at 70mph, the braking distance was 102ft (31m), which increased to 115ft (35m) with alcohol; 128ft (39m) with a hands-free phone and 148ft (45m) with a hand-held mobile.

WHO, WHAT, WHY?
Graphic
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

While some argue speaking hands-free is no more of a distraction than talking to a passenger, other research suggests they are little better than hand-held phones.

Several studies have found it is the increased demands on the brain involved in holding a conversation on a phone - whether hand-held or hands-free - that's the real danger while driving, not handling of the device.

If a person is in a car they are aware of the pressures on the driver at any given moment and regulate conversation levels to allow them to concentrate. However, someone at the other end of the phone cannot see road conditions and make such adjustments, say researchers.

"The danger with a conversation on a mobile is that it psychologically removes you from the vehicle," says Cris Burgess, an expert on driving behaviour. It's the same if you are holding the phone or using a hands-free kit, he says.

The government has expressed concerns over hands-free kits. It has stopped short of banning them but they could still get you into trouble with the law.

"Hands-free phones are a distraction and you risk prosecution for not having proper control of a vehicle if the police see you driving poorly while using one," says the Department for Transport's (DfT).



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