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Is hands-free really risk-free?

We all know that driving while holding a mobile phone is both highly dangerous and illegal. And since May, getting caught using a non-hands free phone now brings with it a set of even tougher punishments  - with the penalty now doubled to a £200 fine and six points on your licence.

New research

Here at Big Motoring World we obviously think that coming down hard on people who hold their phones while driving is common sense - but new research led by a team from the University of Iowa suggests that continuing to allow people to even use hands-free devices might not be as safe as many assume.

Slower to react

The research focuses on reaction times - clearly a critical measure of any drivers’ ability to respond to rapidly changing events on the road. The US scientists have found that driver reaction times are affected to the same extent whether the driver is holding a handset or just speaking into a hands-free mobile. It’s a worrying finding, and one that comes down to the speed that we’re able to give our attention to what’s happening on the road ahead. Here’s what Shaun Vecera, a professor of psychological and brain sciences who worked on the study has to say. “It slows your attention down – and we’re just not aware of it because it happens so fast. It is going to delay your ability to react by braking. Ten feet at 60mph can be the difference between stopping safely and rear-ending someone.’

The price of distraction

So how did the researchers come to their conclusions? Well, they asked participants to respond to simple true or false statements while tracking their eye movements, and the experiment showed that those who were asked a question took twice as long to look at new object as those who weren’t. Or, to put it another way, that means that a driver who is talking to someone on a hands-free mobile phone kit or who is chatting to someone else in the car will take twice as long to notice a new object in front of them as someone whose attention isn’t distracted. That extra time is in fact only around 40 milliseconds - but in a speeding car that can be the difference between hitting an upcoming obstacle or taking avoiding action.

Time to act?

So, where does that leave us? Using hands-free mobile kits is still legal in the UK, but perhaps it’s time for the Government to start looking at new legislation to make our roads even safer. Ultimately, it’s clear that anything which impairs our ability to react to hazards can’t be a good thing.