‘Hands-free’ phone use legal, but still a bad habit

If there is one fool proof way to drive another motorist mad it is to use a mobile phone. It really is one of those behaviours that seems to get right under people’s skin. You can see it every day. Stand on a roundabout in any Irish town and in minutes you will see examples of the ‘one armed bandits’ – phone in one hand and steering wheel in the other.

You can see it on the open road as well. Follow a car on a motorway and you can often see it slow down, then speed up, drift sideways across the lanes until eventually he straightens up and drives on correctly. Nine times out of ten his distracted moments were caused by a mobile phone.

This is illegal of course but a lot of people seem to think that it is not illegal enough. I attended a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Transport last week where the ten-year old penalty points system was reviewed. A lot of voices on that committee – and to be fair a great many motorists – want to see much tougher penalties for phone use.

It is not just the act of holding the device in one hand and the wheel in the other that is dangerous. It has been well researched that having a phone conversation while driving is inherently distracting, much more so than talking to a passenger or many other activities.

Human beings have evolved a very complex form of communication. When you talk to someone else there is a huge amount going on apart from the words that are used. Visual cues around gestures, facial expression and body language carry much more information than the words themselves.

On the phone you don’t have any of those non-verbal cues so the human brain compensates. Think about what happens when you are on the phone but not driving. You will quite typically pace up and down, pick something up and put it down again or make gestures to the empty air. You then hang up and look around you wondering where on Earth you left your cup of tea, only to find it on a shelf somewhere.

The same thing happens on the road. You may drive the car quite well on the face of it but you are only using part of your brain. Another part is busily picturing the person that you are talking to. The more detailed the conversation and the more it calls on your visual imagination the more distracting that it is.

This is called ‘cognitive impairment’ and there is now a lot of good evidence to show that this type of distraction while driving makes a crash more likely. The RSA published a report in 2009 that showed that while much better than the ‘one armed bandits’ drivers were four times more likely to have a crash during a hands-free phone call than when concentrating fully on their driving.

At some level most of us know this and certainly there is almost universal agreement that drivers should not use hand held phones. AA research shows that over 60% of drivers support tougher penalties and 17% favoured a driving ban, which is very severe for a first offence.

But at the same time over half of the 16,000 Irish drivers included in the research said that they had at least occasionally used a phone themselves. It is a very Irish attitude; support for tough penalties when asked in abstraction but willing to make exceptions for ourselves when it comes to it.

I think we are likely to see the laws on hand-held phone use get tougher, especially for repeat offenders.

Hands-free phone use will remain legal for practical reasons but it is still a bad habit. We advise motorists to keep it to an absolute minimum and keep any conversations brief and to the point.

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