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Why it’s not enough to get your hands off it

The Get your hand off it campaign, started in June 2013, warned against using hand-held mobile phones while driving. Yet Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has just found that using a hands-free mobile while driving is just as distracting as holding a mobile.

Researchers measured reaction times and driving performance of drivers using hands-free and hand-held phones on a virtual road network.

Drivers having phone conversations, whether hands-free or hand-held, took 40% longer than other drivers to respond to a pedestrian entering a crossing from the footpath. This equates to a distance of about 11 metres while travelling at 40 kmh.

Brain effort

Doctor Shimul Haque said the brain effort needed to have a conversation is the main cause of distraction, not whether the driver held a phone or not. He said the brain compensates for receiving more information from a conversation by not sending visual information to working memory.

P-platers need double the reaction time of fully-licensed drivers when they are using a hands-free system. This is why they are banned from using mobiles at all while driving.

Unfortunately, this news is not new.

University of Utah published a study in 2006, begun in 2003, which shows drivers who talk on phones, whether hand-held or hands-free, are as impaired as drunken drivers at the US legal limit of .08%. Compared with undistracted drivers, motorists drive more slowly, are 9% slower to brake, show 24% more variation in driving distance and are 19% slower to resume normal speed after braking.

Other studies

As early as 1997, the university found a quarter of motorists in accidents had used their phone in the 10 minutes before the accident – a four-fold increase in accidents, compared to undistracted drivers. In other studies:

  • 2001 - hands-free phones are just as distracting as hand-held phones
  • 2003 - “inattention blindness” is where motorists look at the road, don’t see it because they are distracted by phones, but don’t know their driving is impaired
  • 2005- reaction times for teenagers and young adults talking on phones while driving are as slow as those of elderly drivers.

Given the age and persistence of these results, it is perhaps surprising that even fully licensed drivers can legally use hands-free phones while driving. A 2015 Deloitte study found 42% of Australian drivers use their phones while driving, but that figure is likely to be much higher.

Talking on mobiles while driving might have something to do with the worrying increase in the NSW road toll in 2016.