“It is proven that the physical effects of holding a device are not as much an impairment to concentration as the mental distraction of holding a conversation and this is the same when using hands-free. “In fact, you are four times more likely to be involved in a collision, resulting in injury, if you are on a call including using hands-free options.” Shaun Helman, chief scientist for behavioural and data sciences at TRL (Transport Research Laboratory), welcomed the legislation being updated, but believes it could be construed as a “bad thing” by retaining the focus on hand-held devices. “It reinforces the myth that’s the most important thing,” he said.
New limits on using cellphones while driving do not go far enough, according to road safety experts, and have been dubbed a “lost opportunity.” The government has announced that using a hand-held device while driving will be outlawed in almost all circumstances, although hands-free calls will be allowed, and the potential concerns of distracted driving via entertainment systems remain unresolved. “While I applaud any adjustments that limit driver distractions caused by mobile phone use, the proposal does not go far enough,” Alison Moriarty, fleet risk director at Driive Consulting and former fleet manager, said.
There are four types of distraction: manual, visual, auditory and cognitive. Helman explained: “What this law still does is focus on just one of those. “In that sense, it’s a missed opportunity and it’s maintaining this flawed narrative that, as long as you’re not holding something, you’re safe.” It was already illegal to text or make a phone call (other than in an emergency) using a hand-held device while driving. The new rules, which will come into force next year, will specifically ban drivers from using their phones to take photos or videos, scroll through playlists or play games. The Government launched a consultation on mobile phone use while driving in October 2020 to close a loophole in the original law.
The Government says drivers will still be able to continue using a device ‘hands-free’ while driving, such as a sat-nav, if it’s secured in a cradle. However, if police deem that they are not to be in proper control of their vehicle, they can be charged with careless driving. Moriarty says allowing drivers to still use phones in a cradle, sends the wrong message. “You are condoning them to take their eyes off the road, which can be lethal even for a few seconds,” she said. “Drivers will, inevitably, continue to scroll through messages and music choices and fail to be in full control of their vehicles.” Helman says that one of the problems is that “we don’t really know what’s safe enough”.
The law referred to “interactive telecommunication” reflecting how, when it was written in 2003, smartphones were not in existence and mobile devices were used for sending texts or making calls. It has enabled lawyers to successfully argue that using a phone’s camera while driving does not constitute “interactive telecommunication”. It was brought to a head in 2019, when a driver had a conviction quashed for filming a crash on his mobile phone. His lawyers successfully argued that the law only banned the use of mobile phones to speak or communicate while behind the wheel. Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “By making it easier to prosecute people illegally using their phone at the wheel, we are ensuring the law is brought into the 21st century.” Anyone caught using their handheld device while driving will face a £200 fixed penalty notice and six points on their licence.
A report he co-authored explains that there are rules of thumb, and specific studies that it can cite guidance from, such as research from the National Highways Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) around distractions in the vehicle. It suggests that any task requiring individual glances away from the road of two seconds or more should not be allowed. Work from TRL, meanwhile, has shown that response times to sudden events when driving in a simulator are slower with a task that mimics even a hands-free conversation on a phone. The study found that the slowing of reactions was even greater than that seen when drivers were at the legal alcohol limit for driving. Helman explained: “There’s an acceptable level (of distraction), but I suspect it probably should be below hands-free phone conversations.”