Top road safety figures back research into dangers of hands-free

10.00 | 19 February 2024 | | 4 comments

The UK’s roads policing lead and the CEO of The Road Safety Trust are supporting the findings of an educational project highlighting to police that hands-free phone use while driving is no safe alternative to hand-held use.

The Open University project, called We need to talk about hands-free, was funded by The Road Safety Trust, and involved fellow academics from the Universities of Staffordshire and Keele.

Its findings are being revealed at a time when the National Police Chiefs’ Council is focusing on a campaign, which lasts until 10 March, to crackdown on people being distracted by their mobile phone whilst driving.

While hands-free mobile phone use by drivers is not illegal, a vast body of research has shown it is no safer than hand-held phone use.

This latest project was aimed at police officers, who are at the frontline of dealing with the devastation that distracted driving can cause, to ensure they are fully informed.

There were 470 officers from England and Wales that took part in an interactive video task designed by researchers at the OU.

Following the task, officer attitudes to the safety of legal hands-free mobile phone use by drivers dramatically changed, with 88% reporting that, in future encounters with phone-using drivers, they would explain the dangers of all phone use, not just hand-held use.

Chief constable Jo Shiner, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for roads policing, is urging drivers to carefully consider the findings.

She said: “I welcome any research which progresses our understanding of risk and how it can be removed from our roads.”

She added: “This is a positive step forward in terms of preventing harm and reducing fatal and serious collisions. This work should be applauded and carefully considered by everyone who uses the roads.”

Ruth Purdie OBE, chief executive of The Road Safety Trust, said: “Evidence shows that hands-free is as dangerous as physically using a mobile phone.

“The cognitive distraction can increase crash risk, reduce hazard detection, and lead to poor situational awareness. 

“Therefore, it is vital, as this report highlights, that police officers are not recommending hands-free as a safe alternative to illegally using a hands-free device.

“We hope this project can shine a light on the issue and provide officers the guidance they need when encountering offenders.”

Professor of Applied Cognitive Psychology at the OU, Gemma Briggs, said: “Research emphatically demonstrates that hands-free phone use is no safer than hand-held phone use due to the cognitive distraction it causes.

“The problem is not many people realise this, and many resist these research findings.

“This project has highlighted the importance of the advice that is given being focused on safety, not just legality.”

Existing research shows drivers using either a hand-held or a hands-free phone are four times more likely to be involved in a collision, often fail to notice hazards – even when they appear directly ahead of them – and take longer to react to any hazards they do notice.

Dr Helen Wells of Keele University, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, who was also involved in the research, said: “When a police officer stops someone for using their mobile phone illegally they have an opportunity to give safe or unsafe advice to a driver. Our project means that more officers will now give advice that will keep drivers safe, not just keep them out of trouble with the law.”

Staffordshire University’s Dr Leanne Savigar-Shaw, who is a senior Lecturer in Policing, said: “We hope that this research helps to open up conversations between police officers about the risks of using hands-free devices and continues to inform their interactions with drivers. That is important to support efforts to improve the safety of our roads.”



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    I write as a former police driver who also served as an instructor at a major Police driving school. I would propose that an officer using the radio in a situation such as a pursuit is not having a conversation and it does not involve the brain in the same way that talking on the phone does. It is a straight relaying of information and that is something that officers spend a lot of time doing on their driving courses honing their commentary skills. It is my experience that when starting to give a commentary drivers usually see a slight drop in their driving standard, but as they become more accustomed to it the standard of their driving actually improves when required to commentate. A commentary does not require reaction to the responses of the person who hears it; this is where it differs from a phone conversation. I would like to see some genuine scientific research done on this.

    David Daw, Bury St Edmunds
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    I am always being asked by drivers why Emergency Response drivers are allowed to use radios whilst driving. A question or two invariably draws out the reason they ask this: so many people have no idea about the extensive driver training undertaken by ER drivers, nor do they understand the rules relating to simplex/duplex transmissions. Very many seem to see (Police Drivers especially) as a driver ‘just like me’, and always assume that their own driving skills, knowledge level, awareness and understanding are the same as (or better than) an ER driver.

    Philip Hastings, Shaftesbury
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    This is by no means new knowledge. Hands-free has always been known to be just as risky as its alternative; holding an object in one’s hand has never been a problem and the issue has never been anything other than the concentration required to have a telephone conversation while driving.

    I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this was known to the politicians and their advisers when the current legislation allowing hands-free phone usage was drafted. For some perverse reasons this knowledge was ignored. Someone somewhere was probably being paid to lobby for the interests of the mobile phone companies and this research sheds no new light. What we need is an investigation into why the legislation was so poorly conceived when its primary purpose was to make sure our roads were safer, not riskier.

    David Daw, Bury St Edmunds
    Agree (6) | Disagree (1)

    The problem is, when viewers of programmes like Traffc Cops see the police driving at speed, whilst communicating over their radios, giving and listening to detailed information, it gives the impression that it is doable and therefore safe. I wonder if any police collisions have occured whilst the driver was on his/her radio and was distracted?

    Hugh Jones, Cheshire
    Agree (5) | Disagree (2)

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