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Hands-free calls just as distracting as hand-held

Distracted driving

The University of Sussex has released research they've been doing into distracted driving - and if you've been smugly using your phone cradle for conference calls, you might not like what they found.

The science

When you take a call, you're using the part of your brain you'd usually have fixed on the road. The researchers say we visualise the conversation we're having, leaving us with less ability to predict and react to hazards.

Phone conversations have been found to be more distracting than the radio and conversations with passengers - the radio isn't waiting for you to answer and your passengers are likely to shut up when they see you need to concentrate.

The study

A group of male and female drivers were asked to drive a car. Half were allowed to carry on undistracted and half heard a voice through a nearby loudspeaker, which started a conversation with them.

The drivers who were distracted by the voice took just under a second longer to respond to hazards like pedestrians in the road. If you're going just 30mph, you can travel up to 13.5 metres in a second. Managing to avoid a kid that just ran into the road relies on a split-second reaction.

Asking a simple question - like "Where did you put the toothpaste?"- during a call could mean a driver concentrates on an area 4 times smaller than normal, because their brain is visualising the answer to the problem.


It's even worse for young drivers

Unfortunately, for young drivers, distraction is even more of a big deal. We don't have a fully-developed hazard perception centre in our brain until around 25, so newer drivers have to be actively concentrating at all times.

More experienced drivers (rightly or wrongly) tend to rely on their instinct to avoid immediate danger; young drivers don't have this luxury and need to be looking for potential hazards so they can plan a reaction.

It doesn't come naturally and it takes a lot of work to get through the period in our lives where we're on the road but don't have fully-developed risk management skills. We've recently been looking into how we can help young people develop their hazard perception skills before they start learning so keep your eyes peeled for that.

It may not be illegal yet but you can get a penalty

Using a hand-held phone can get you a Fixed Penalty Notice, which means 3 points on your licence and a £100 fine.

Although hands-free calls aren't illegal right now, if the police think you were distracted you can still get a penalty for driving without due care and attention.

So what's the answer?

Stop doing things in the car that aren't driving? That's the simple solution right there. But hey, humans aren't simple.

Dr Graham Hole, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex, says if we make all phone use illegal, the police would struggle to enforce a rule against hands-free. However, changing the legislation would send the right message: it's not cool to call when you're driving, no matter how you're doing it.

Honor Clement-Hayes

By Honor Clement-Hayes

Honor joined ingenie in 2014 and is in charge of words on the Young Driver's Guide and blog. Her first car is a Peugeot 206 cabriolet, which is a very sensible choice for the British climate. Follow her on .