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Revealing the dangers of hands-free phone use

Research led by Dr Gemma Briggs from The Open University’s Forensic Cognition Research Group aims to save lives by informing Government policy. Her team have provided new evidenced-based explanations for the cognitive distraction drivers experience when using a hands-free phone.

Key impacts include:

Directly informing policy recommendations made by the Transport Select Committee to Government, on the need to reconsider current mobile phone legislation.

Publication of evidence-based support that has led to a campaign to ban hands-free mobiles whilst driving.

The creation of innovative, evidence-based educational resources which enable drivers to experience the distraction imposed by phone use. These have been shared with members of industry, road safety organisations/charities and the general public.

Working with the police to create educational resources for use in the National Police Chief's Council annual mobile phone enforcement campaign.

What this research has done

Hands-free ‘infotainment’ systems are now commonplace, despite research showing that drivers using a phone are four times more likely to be involved in a collision, regardless of whether the phone is handheld or hands-free.

It has been known for some time that hands-free offers no safety benefit to drivers. Research carried out by a team led by Dr Gemma Briggs at The Open University has now provided evidence of the specific underlying reasons why this is the case.

 The research identified that phone conversations encourage mental imagery, which uses the same brain areas as those needed for visual perception. This leads to competition for cognitive resources, resulting in reduced driving performance. The use of eye tracking technology allowed the team to demonstrate that distracted drivers look around far less than undistracted drivers, tending to focus almost entirely on the area directly ahead of them and largely ignoring what’s going on elsewhere. Hence, even if a hazard appears where the driver is focusing, they may still fail to see it, as their mind is on the phone conversation.

Our research shows that having two eyes on the road, and both hands on the wheel, does not in itself equate to safe driving. There is no scientific justification for banning hand-held phones but allowing hands-free use.

Dr Gemma Briggs
The Open University

This research offers clear theory- and evidence-based explanations for why driving errors occur. It also provides concrete evidence that dual-tasking hugely reduces hazard detection ability, significantly increases driver reaction times and results in much longer stopping distances.

This evidence has proved a powerful tool to inform and educate road users and policymakers and support road safety campaigners. For example, the research has been showcased in leading road safety charity Brake’s ‘Phone Smart’ campaign, shared by the charities Cycling UK and IAM RoadSmart, and features in RoSPA’s Road Safety factsheet. The researchers have also taken part in multiple interviews on radio, television and the print media, and have given presentations to policy makers and practitioners, including the NPCC, Highways England, the Association of Road Risk Management and UKROEd.

Moreover, Dr Gemma Briggs, who conducted the research with Dr Graham Hole of Sussex University, was an expert witness to the Transport Select Committee which produced a widely-publicised report in August 2019, recommending Government explore options for extending the ban on driving while using a hand-held mobile to hands-free devices.

Research publications