Talking, reading and responding at the wheel

Key factsSilentthumb

  • Drivers who use phones, either hands-free and hand-held, have been found by researchers to be four times more likely to be in a crash resulting in injuries than drivers not distracted [1];
  • Drivers on phones are more likely to be blame-worthy in crashes [2];
  • After interacting with an information system such as a phone or other device, it can take nearly half a minute to regain full attention [3];
  • Surveys suggest drivers aged 18-35 are the age group most likely to read and respond when behind the wheel [4];
  • Head-up Display (HUD) technology that displays information on a windscreen is being marketed as safer, but may encourage longer distraction. [5]
  • As of March 2017, the penalty for using a hand-held mobile at the wheel in the UK has increased to an on-the spot fine of £200 and six points added to the offender's driving licence. 

Introduction

Rises in smart phone usage, and frequency and duration of use, has led to research indicating levels of addiction. [6] The accessibility of wireless connections while on the move has inevitably led to significant levels of smart phone use while driving.

Using a smart phone in whatever way diverts part of a driver’s mind from the driving task, both during the distraction, and after it has finished. Drivers who talk on phones, both hands-free and hand-held, have been found by researchers to be four times more likely to be in a crash resulting in injuries [7]. It can take nearly half a minute to regain full attention [6]. Researchers have found a correlation between phone use and culpability in crashes [8].

Aside from mental distraction, any distraction that takes a driver’s eyes or hands off the road for any length of time (for example to check messages or scroll through music options) is potentially lethal. At 70mph a vehicle travels 31.5m (about the length of seven cars) every second.

Smart phones and how they connect to our vehicles

In the UK, as in many countries, it is still legal to use a phone while driving as long as it is hands-free [9]. Consequently, it has been possible for vehicle and communication technology manufacturers to work together to develop systems that enable a range of phone functions to be operated hands-free while driving. In the past, this meant hands-free calls. Now, with the advent of smart phones, it means much more. In many higher-end vehicles, a driver can now access communication and entertainment information from their phone (for example, lists of phone contacts and music) on a large display screen that doubles up as a screen for navigation maps.

The next step beyond screens is Head-up displays (HUD), pioneered in aeroplanes. HUD projects information onto the windscreen and manufacturers say this is less distracting because the driver doesn’t look down. Luxury cars are available with in-built HUD that can display safety information such as speed of travel (which saves having to look down at a speedometer) and ADAS warnings. HUD can, however, also be linked to the driver’s smart phone, enabling communication and entertainment information to appear on the windscreen.

HUD is also now beginning to be sold as an after-market product specifically aiming to bring together the two functions of driving and staying connected. A number of companies have begun developing apps and hardware that enables a driver to connect their smart phone to a dash-mounted device that projects onto the windscreen. One such company [10] provides a controlling device fitted onto the steering wheel and markets its product as allowing a driver to "make and receive calls, listen to messages, control music, receive calendar reminders and stay connected to the apps on your phone" and "look forward while staying connected". Messages appear on the screen and are read out by the app using voice software, and the driver responds by speaking or using waving gestures. Another company [11] is advertised as bringing the “internet to your windshield”. [11]

It can be argued that such technologies contribute to increased use of the broad range of smart phone functions while driving, enabling and encouraging calls and messaging and display of other information. Meanwhile, many drivers in the UK do not have access to display screens or HUD and a significant proportion illegally use hand-held smart phones while driving.

The risks

Researchers argue that the impact of distraction is “task-dependent rather than device-dependent”. [12] This means smart phones are distracting regardless of the way their functions are delivered to the driver (whether hand-held, a hands-free call, or on-screen/HUD). The more complex the task (such as reading or responding to messages) the more adverse the effect on driver awareness and reaction time. [13]

Hands-free and hand-held calls

Hands-free calls cause similar levels of risk as hand-held calls [14]; the call itself is the main distraction, not holding the phone. Brain scanning and simulations have confirmed speaking on a hands-free phone reduces the visual processing power available in the brain and drivers experience ‘visual tunnelling’, narrowing their field of vision. [15] In one research project, people using a driving simulator were spoken to through a loud speaker and asked simple questions that required them to think about something unrelated to driving. These drivers took nearly a second longer to respond to a pedestrian stepping off a pavement than undistracted participants in the research. [16] A car driven at 30mph travels about three car lengths in one second.

Studies have shown speaking on a phone while driving can also lead to:

  • Aggressive, compensatory driving behaviour, particularly when braking;
  • Difficulty in judging when to brake [17]; and
  • Delayed stopping and starting. [18]

One research project found phone-dependent drivers were more likely to drive fast and swerve during a simulator test that enabled them to hear a call coming in, but unable to answer it [19].

It has been argued that talking on a phone is no different to talking to a passenger. However, research has found drivers talking to passengers are less at risk than drivers on phones; it is theorised by researchers that conversations with passengers are modulated because both the driver and passengers can see what is happening on the road [20].

Use of smart phones to message or browse

Reading and responding to information on a smart phone requires a high level of cognitive attention [21] as well as obviously requiring the driver to divert their eyes and take their hands off the steering wheel if typing.

One study has estimated that texting drivers have reaction times 35% slower than unimpaired drivers and much poorer lane control [22].

Head-up Displays (HUD)

Research findings into HUD are only just emerging. Researchers in Australia have tested drivers on simulators using HUD to receive and respond to messages, and tested drivers on simulators using hand-held smart phones to receive and respond to messages. Both groups had poorer vehicle control than drivers not distracted, with vehicle control only slightly worse if reading a display on a smart phone compared with using the HUD.

Participants spent longer being distracted by HUD messages than the smart phone messages, “offsetting potential safety benefits of the head-up system”. [23]

Prevalence of use

A 2014 survey of drivers by Brake and Direct Line showed almost half (45%) admitted to talking on any kind of phone while driving, despite 68% saying it is dangerous to undertake any call (hand-held or hands-free) while driving. [24]

The survey found the proportion of UK drivers who said they illegally use hand-held mobile phones while driving had dropped compared with previous surveys (from 36% in 2006 to 13% in 2014). However, those saying they use hands-free had risen from 22% to 38% [25]. (The UK banned using hand-held phones while driving in 2003.)

Younger drivers

Younger drivers are consistently found to be more likely to take the risk of using mobile phones while driving, particularly hand-held and for a wider range of purposes other than just calls.

 An observation study of English drivers in 2014 confirmed younger drivers are more likely to use hand-held phones at the wheel. [26]

A 2016 driver survey by Brake and Direct Line found more than one in three (38%) of drivers aged 25-34 admitted to regularly (several times a week or daily) reading or sending a text or instant message while driving. Nearly a third (31%) of drivers in this age range also admitted to browsing the internet, using social media or other apps while driving, at the same frequency of several times a week or daily. [27]

This compared markedly with much lower numbers of drivers in higher age brackets (6% or below admitting to either of these behaviours with this frequency).

At-work drivers

Studies have shown a higher rate of phone use among at-work drivers than all drivers. A 2012 driver survey by Brake and Direct Line found more than half (55%) of at-work drivers admitted talking on a phone (either hands-free or hand-held) while driving, compared to 36% of drivers not at work. In the same study more than a third (35%) of at-work drivers admitted to using a hand-held phone at the wheel compared to 25% of drivers not at work [28]

Employers have the power to introduce their own rules for at-work drivers. In a survey by Brake Professional (Brake’s service working for fleet safety) the charity found four in ten companies surveyed (mainly in Britain), nearly half (44.1%) have a policy that drivers should not adjust, nor communicate using, any in-vehicle technology while driving. [29]

Legal framework

In 2003, an amendment to the Road vehicle (construction and use) Regulations 1986 made it illegal in Britain to ride a motorcycle or drive while using a handheld mobile or a similar device [30]. This means drivers and riders cannot make a call, send text messages, use apps, or access the internet with a handheld device while the engine is running. Drivers cannot use a handheld device even when the car is stationary at traffic lights or in traffic. The only exemption is when the driver has to call 999 in a genuine emergency and there is nowhere safe to stop. [31]

Although the use of hands-free devices are not currently against the law, the Highway Code (Rule 149) highlights the dangers of distraction from using them. The Highway Code recommends switching off phones and similar devices and finding a safe place to stop before listening to any voice mail messages or checking messages. [32]

Penalties

As of March 2017, the penalties for motorists using a hand-held phone and similar devices when driving have increased. The fixed penalty is now £200 and the number of penalty points incurred has increased points from three points to six points. Novice drivers who receive six points will automatically lose their licence and bus or lorry drivers can be suspended if caught using a hand-held phone at the wheel. [34]

If the case is heard in court, the penalty can be £1,000 and disqualification. Drivers of buses and trucks can be fined up to £2,500. [35]

However, disqualification is rare. In 2015, only 33 people were disqualified from driving for mobile phone use (16,023 were fined). [26]

Drivers found guilty of killing or seriously injured as a result of distraction can face charges such as death by dangerous driving, and prison sentences.

Employers can be held liable for an employee using a hand-held mobile phone at the wheel. The law banning hand-held mobile phones at the wheel includes the offence of ‘causing or permitting’ drivers to do this. It is the employers’ legal responsibility to discourage employees from engaging with dangerous behaviour and if they fail to do so they can be prosecuted alongside their employee. [37] The Health and Safety Executive states employers whose personnel drive for work must ensure they “know they must not use a hand-held mobile phone while driving and that even using a hands-free phone can seriously affect concentration”. [38]

Learn more: Read our fact page on driver distractions.


End notes

[1] Role of mobile phones in motor vehicle crashes resulting in hospital attendance: a case-crossover study, University of Western Australia, 2005
[2] Asbridge M1, Brubacher JR, Chan H., Cell phone use and traffic crash risk: a culpability analysis, Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
[3] Measuring cognitive distraction in the automobile III, University of Utah, for AAA Foundation for traffic safety, 2015
[4] Risky business: smartphones, Bake and Direct Line, 2016
[5] McCarley et al, Drivers’ Interaction and Distraction with Head-down and Head-up messaging systems, Presentation to ICTTP conference, Brisbane, 2 August 2016
[6] Smartphone use and smartphone addiction among young people in Switzerland, Severin Haug, 2015
[7] Role of mobile phones in motor vehicle crashes resulting in hospital attendance: a case-crossover study, University of Western Australia, 2005
[8] Asbridge M1, Brubacher JR, Chan H., Cell phone use and traffic crash risk: a culpability analysis, Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
[9] Mobile phone use: a growing problem of driver distraction, World Health Organisation, 2011
[10] Look forward, stay connected, Navdy, 2016
[11] Carloudy, 2016
[12] Kinnear, Helman et al, A consideration of driver inattention and technology, Presentation to ICTTP conference, Brisbane, 2 August 2016
[13] Measuring cognitive distraction in the automobile, AAA Foundation for traffic safety, 2013
[14] Hole, G. et al, Imagery-inducing distraction leads to cognitive tunnelling and deteriorated driving performance, the University of Sussex, 2016
[15] Ibid
[16] Ibid
[17] Haque, M and Washington, S., The impact of mobile phone distraction on the braking behaviour of young drivers: a hazard-based duration model, 2014
[18] Huth, V. et al, Drivers’ phone use at red traffic lights: a roadside observational study comparing calls and visual-manual interaction, 2014
[19] Kass, S. et al, Effects of mobile phone dependence on driver distraction, 2016
[20] Gaspar, J. et al, Providing views of the driving scene to driver conversation partners mitigates cell-phone-related distraction, 2014
[21] Measuring cognitive distraction in the automobile, AAA Foundation for traffic safety, 2013
[22] The effect of text messaging on driver behaviour: a simulator survey, TRL, 2008
[23] McCarley et al, Drivers’ Interaction and Distraction with Head-down and Head-up messaging systems, Presentation to ICTTP conference, Brisbane, 2 August 2016
[24] Distracted driving: Mobile phones, Brake and Direct Line, 2014
[25] Ibid
[26] Sullman, M et al, A roadside study of observable driver distraction, Cranfield University, 2014
[27] Risky business: smartphones, Bake and Direct Line, 2016
[28] Brake and Direct Line reports on safe driving part 8: At-work drivers, 2012
[29] Fleet survey report 2016: The Brake Pledge, Brake, 2016
[30] Road vehicle (construction and use) Regulations (Amendment) (No.4) 1986, gov.uk, 2003
[31] The Highway Code: rule 149, Department for Transport, updated 2016
[32] Ibid
[33] Double penalties for drivers using mobile phones, Department for Transport, 2017
[34] Ibid
[35] Ibid
[36] Criminal justice statistics quarterly: December 2015, Ministry of Justice, 2016
[37] Road vehicle (construction and use) Regulations (Amendment) (No.4) 1986, gov.uk, 2003
[38] Driving for work, the Health and Safety Executive, 2014


Last updated: November 2016