Hands-free car phones are 'as dangerous as drink-driving'

James Randerson,
science correspondent
Friday June 30, 2006
The Guardian

Using a hands-free kit while at the wheel is as dangerous as drink driving, according to a study of volunteers in a driving simulator. The researchers conclude that all mobile phone use while driving should be banned.

"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 cellphone and drive. The level of impairment is very similar," said the report's lead author, David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah.

The researchers studied the driving skills of 40 volunteers who followed a virtual car in a driving simulator which was programmed to brake at random.

Each of the volunteers performed the task four times: without distractions, while using a handheld phone, while speaking on a hands-free kit and after downing enough vodka to put them just over the drink-driving limit.

As in previous studies, the researchers found that talking into the phone, whether hands-free or hand-held, impaired their driving. Drivers were 9% slower hitting the brakes, 24% more variable in the distance they kept behind the lead car and 19% slower resuming their normal speed. Their impairment was similar to that when they drove drunk.

Proposed new legislation which is passing through parliament will mean that drivers caught using a hand-held phone will receive three points on their licence. A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents welcomed the move. "We hope that will give the law new teeth," he said.

The society had wanted hands-free kits to be included from the start, he added, although he conceded that this would be difficult to enforce.

"We want people to take the law very seriously," said a spokesman for the Department for Transport. "We don't want people to lose their licence, we want them to hang up."

He said there were no plans to extend the law to cover hands-free kits, but added that users who became distracted and caused an accident risked other penalties. "Don't think you are above the law because you are using hands-free."

Another study, carried out by researchers at the University of Michigan Transport Research Institute, which involved observing 36 drivers covering more than 80,000 miles on the road, found that speaking to passengers could be as distracting as talking on a mobile. Drivers nattering to the person next to them strayed further from the centre of their lane, for example.

Although less research has been done on the effects of distracting passengers, the result goes against conventional wisdom. Researchers had assumed that passengers would be more likely to keep quiet at difficult driving moments.


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