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New warning over hands-free mobile phone use

18 March 2009

Driver reaction times, such as the time taken to apply the brakes or steer away from danger, are significantly slower when driving whilst using a hands-free mobile phone than when driving whilst over the legal alcohol limit, according to a study by car insurer Direct Line, carried out by Transport Research Laboratory (TRL).

When travelling at 70 mph the affect on reaction time caused by the hands-free mobile conversation means that the vehicle travels 26ft further than one driven under ‘normal conditions’ before the driver is fully engaged and able to take the appropriate action.

In contrast, someone driving slightly over the legal alcohol limit would travel just 13ft further than someone driving under normal conditions before they responded - half the distance of the hands-free mobile using driver.

Previous research, highlighted by TRL in the study, has shown that any conversation taking place in the vehicle is a major distraction, with drivers’ concentration levels reduced for an average of 10 minutes after the conversation has ended.

Meanwhile, although it is legal to use a hands-free kit to make a call whilst driving, over two fifths (41%) of motorists think the use of hands-free kits should be banned and 71% of motorists polled think that they are a distraction to the driver, according to data from esure car insurance. In 2007, 2,986 motorists were prosecuted for failing to have proper control of their vehicle while being distracted by hands-free phone calls.

The findings have been revealed following the Driving for Better Business campaign’s call for a ban on hands-free mobile phone use last month.

The call was made after a woman was convicted of careless driver following a road crash in which another driver was killed. The woman, who was banned from driving for 12 months and fined £2,000, had been involved in conversations on her hands-free mobile phone when she ploughed into an oncoming car.

However, despite the delayed reaction times, it is not illegal to have a hands free mobile conversation whilst driving. Consequently it was viewed as a ‘safe activity’ by people taking part in the research study.

Despite an apparent lack of awareness of the full dangers of driving while using a hands-free phone, 52% of those asked would be in support of an outright ban on using mobile phones while driving.

Direct Line has found that 22% of drivers have made calls on a hands-free mobile whilst behind the wheel in the last year.

Maggie Game, head of car insurance at Direct Line, said: “Given that drink driving was responsible for 14,480 casualties, including 460 deaths, on the road in 2007, the potential for casualties from mobile phone use is frightening.

“Whilst serious injuries and death on the road as a result of drink driving are decreasing, the potential for mobile phones to be a contributory factor in serious road accidents can only increase.”