Road safety campaigners have called for a complete ban on drivers using mobiles – after a study showed that hands-free devices pose as big a risk as hand-held phones.
Psychologists at the University of Sussex claim that simply having a conversation makes drivers’ reaction times slower, leading to a higher risk of failing to spot hazards on the road.
The research revealed that those distracted by the hands-free phone took just under a second longer to spot hazards – including some that were right in front of them.
Drivers distracted by questions that involved more thought were even worse, spotting half as many hazards as undistracted drivers.
Those using hands-free phones also concentrated on an area of road up to four times smaller than those who weren’t.
Dr Graham Hole, a senior lecturer in psychology at the university, said: “A popular misconception is that using a mobile phone while driving is safe as long as the driver uses a hands-free phone.
“Our research shows this is not the case.
“Hands-free can be equally distracting because conversations cause the driver to visually imagine what they’re talking about.”
One of the experiments involved 60 men and women in a driving simulator watching a video of a hazardous car journey. Participants were asked to hit the car’s brakes when hazards arose, such as pedestrians stepping out into the road and badly-parked cars. To create the effects of a hands-free phone, statements were played over a loudspeaker, to which the ‘drivers’ had to answer whether they were true or false.
A second test using eye-tracking technology revealed that distracted drivers’ visual focus was a quarter of the area that undistracted drivers managed to look at.
Road safety charity, Brake, has called for a complete ban on all mobile phone use when driving.
Lucy Amos, research advisor for Brake, said: ‘Distracted driving is a major cause behind road crashes; pulling the drivers’ attention away from the road and its potential hazards, potentially leading to fatal outcomes.
“This new study is only the latest of many which adds weight to extending the existing legislation to cover all mobile phone use within a vehicle, not just the use of hand-held mobile devices.”