Are you a Phoner Driver?

Consultation process now closed

This page examines the case for a new law.

The dangers of mobile phone use
  • A survey in Canada and especially a survey by the UK TRRL have found disturbing evidence that mobile phone use causes a frightening degree of loss of concentration in drivers. Both surveys also discovered that hands free phones were just as bad as hand held phones. We assume that the effect on concentration proved to be of far greater importance than the mechanics of holding the phone. Both studies reported that the loss of concentration extended significantly beyond the end of the phone call.
  • Many drivers report observing extremely bad driving by users of mobile phones.
  • RoSPA knows of at least 19 deaths on Britain's roads where mobile phones have been implicated, but

  •  believes that this is the tip of the iceberg.
  • At least 35 other countries have banned drivers from using mobile phones.
  • It is also quite possible that there are many millions of phoner drivers who retain their competence as drivers when phoning. We don't know.
  • Download comprehensive RoSPA report (40 page pdf, 255k bytes) on mobile phone safety research. click here
Public behaviour

The Government began to survey the use of handheld mobile phones in November 2000. At the first survey 1.5% of drivers were using a handheld mobile phone. Since this time there have been three further surveys with the last in April 2002. The last survey observed 2.2% of drivers using a handheld mobile. We're told that the interim surveys confirm a steady increase.

These figures show an annual increase in handheld mobile use of around 32%.

The government claims to have publicized the dangers of mobile phone use, but the publicity has failed to significantly affect the growth of use.

The choices

Do we need a new law?

  • The police can use existing legislation in a few different ways to prosecute mobile phone users.
  • There appears to be widespread public support of a law banning the use of mobile phones by drivers.
  • The fact remains that any new law will be no easier to enforce than existing laws. It seems therefore that the only potentially sound reason for a new law is to send a message to the phoner drivers. This might be a sledgehammer to crack a nut, or it might be genuinely cheap and effective publicity. We don't know.
  • The government says it "needs to send a clearer message to motorists".
  • It isn't only phones that cause modern dangerous distractions. Try this new article from CNN about the situation in California. (click here)
  • If we create a new law, who is going to enforce it? The simple answer obviously is "The Police", but wait a minute, it isn't as easy as that. We appear now to have fewer traffic police per vehicle than ever before. If the remaining Traffic Police suddenly divert finite resources to mobile phone offences just what activities will they be diverting resources from? So we must assume that more prosecutions of phoner drivers mean fewer prosecutions for other offences.  We need to be confident that this is desirable.
  • Comment: ABD member John Berry said: "The average hand held user does not consider that any of these laws apply to him /her and their use of  hand held mobiles. A simple straightforward and unambiguous 'You will not use a hand held mobile whilst moving on the threat of a fine and points on your licence' leaves no doubt in anyone's mind. As with speeding, plod discretion could be used on anyone breaking the law, but in my opinion should not be. You want to use a mobile on the move - buy a hands free kit - if you are not prepared to do that then risk a fine. Driving one handed, with an object held in the other is dangerous driving in all but the most undemanding and clear conditions."
  • Comment: ABD member Alex Roebuck said: "There is already legislation against driving without full control of one's vehicle.  By definition, this proposed law means that it would be illegal to use a handheld phone even when safe to do so.  I do it all the time.  If I come to a junction or bend, I put the phone down."
  • Comment: Peter Edwardson ( said: "Banning hand-held mobiles will also make peer pressure much more effective - it's a lot easier to dissuade people from doing something because it's illegal, than simply because it's irresponsible."

Should there be exemptions?

Possible exemptions that have been suggested include:

  • Very short term use (e.g. Hello, hold on while I find a safe place to stop). 
  • Emergency services
The present proposal allows for no exemptions.

Should we also ban hands free phones?

This is a very tricky area. The science and the knowledge of risks suggest we must ban because all known data suggests that hands free phoning is equally dangerous. There are real problems though. If we ban hands free equipment we cripple the emergency services and because there's nothing to see it's really very difficult to detect offences. Is road safety served at all by banning hand held phones?  Wouldn't we simply be forcing drivers to pay for hands free, which is just as dangerous and far harder to detect?

The government's consultation document thinks that hands free phones involve a "speaker". They don't seem to have considered the superior arrangement which uses a headset.

There's a case here for banning hands free equipment! At least we could see if people were using the phone!

Or we could get smart and require hands free equipment to turn on the vehicle hazard lights when operated. Or key the hands free equipment to a speed sensor (as must be done already with driver visible TV screens)

When is a driver using a phone and driving?

The government proposes that there will be an offence unless the vehicle is "parked with the engine off". It seems a shame that it would be illegal to telephone while completely stationary in a motorway traffic jam. But the problem is that a line must be drawn to define the difference between "driving" and "not driving".  We feel sure that a better definition could be found.

Are some drivers safe when phoning?

If some drivers are safe when phoning a ban would be one of those damn "lowest common denominator" laws, where the most skilled are limited by the abilities of the least able. We think that's pretty nasty. However, we simply don't know if some drivers are safe phoners.

Would there be any undesirable side effects of a ban?

  • We must consider the danger that might be caused by drivers stopping in a dangerous positions when that important call comes in.
  • Enforcement might typically be focused on safe instances of mobile phone use, so criminalizing further safe driving practices. (for example, it would be very easy to ticket drivers using a phone while stuck in stationary traffic.)
  • Respect for law in general might be reduced because people will know very well that there are safe times to use a phone from behind the wheel.
  • If hands free phones are not banned then the mobile phone problem would simply be hidden.
Your chance to have your say

This has come up now because the government has published a "consultation document". You can download it here and send your comments to the address included to arrive no later than Monday 25th November 2002. Even a few letters will make a difference. If you feel strongly about any of it then you must send in your comments. Don't knee jerk. You will not be voting against phoner drivers. The new law won't work without education and enforcement, and we could educate and enforce without the new law.

What is it about phones?

Many groups agree that mobile telephones are uniquely distracting to drivers. We've failed to find any research about why (for example) drivers may be more distracted by a telephone conversation than by a conversation with a passenger. On the face of it, a conversation with a passenger would appear to offer equal distractions and some people have assumed that it must be holding the phone itself that makes the difference. The research regarding distraction however found no difference between hand held and hands free devices.

So we are left wondering: "what makes a telephone conversation special?"

Our untested theory is that social conventions make the difference. It is extremely strange during a telephone conversation if the other party goes silent suddenly, and you might immediately drop into "Hello, can you hear me?". There must be conventions that we all use unconsciously to inform each other when it is the other party's turn to speak. We think the extra concentration required for telephoning goes into these subtle extra communications. We're used to it, and we do it unconsciously, but it still takes significant concentration to achieve. It may well be that the type of brain power required to manage a telephone conversation just happens to be similar to the type of brain power required to manage a moving vehicle. Do both at once and they clash.

Here's a personal experience:
"I am a computer engineer and regularly give technical support advice over the telephone. Giving such advice from the office telephone does not seem to be in the least demanding. But technical support over the phone while driving a car is completely out of the question. The demands of a technically complex telephone conversation make safe driving impossible. I'd always thought that it was the complexity of the technical support issues that interfered with driving skills until one day I found myself advising a rear seat passenger who was having problems with a laptop computer. We were able to identify and resolve the problem with the laptop with ease, and with no apparent impact on driving whatsoever. It was much like any conversation with a passenger."

We'd be very interested to hear of any other experiences which might help us all to understand what it is that makes a telephone conversation special.

new A SafeSpeed visitor proposed the following: 

Using the telephone tends to cause you to visualize the other party, I think it's this visualization process that tends to interfere with driving. Perhaps not all people visualize to the same extent, or in the same way, but I know I'm often picturing the person I'm taking to, and I know something affects my driving.

new Matt Grubb proposed the following:

Coming from an electronics engineer/physics background I've been conditioned to think along these lines... Compared to a conversation with a real live car passenger with all the visual cues that involves, a phone conversation (especially on a mobile with poor quality reception) has a much lower signal:noise ratio. There's all sorts of hisses and clicks and silent gaps that the driver's brain has to work a lot harder to process to make sense of, and the lack of the aforementioned visual
cues provides no feedback or error correction, making the brain's job even harder. With the brain doing all this extra signal processing, it has less time to think about keeping the car pointing in the right direction.

On similar lines, I have no problem driving whilst listening to and following the often lengthy conversations of radio presenters (I'll admit to enjoying Terry Wogan on the way to work each day), but then FM reception in my area is excellent and I don't need to think very hard about it. As soon as I get a big hill between me and the transmitter though, I find the sudden loss of audio quality quite distracting and have to change station or click a CD on.

Safe Speed says:

We can't see how the proposed law would really solve the problem and it would make some things worse. There's a problem to address and while we're all thinking about it phoner drivers are growing at 32% every year.

Forcing folk to go hands free seems to hide the problem without fixing it. That's our biggest worry.

We also think that the government is responding to public opinion with a knee jerk reaction. The whole thing stinks of "not properly thought out".

We're sending a reply which urges no new law, and the three main reasons are:

  • Hands free simply hides the problem but leaves it just as dangerous
  • Further safe driving practices would be criminalized (especially mobile phoning from stationary traffic)
  • Excellent enforcement could take place just as well with no new law
  • new Safe Speed response:

    Download our response here  (word 97 document)

    The main points in our reply are as follows:

    We recommend no new law as proposed for the following reasons:

    1. Research shows clearly that hands-free equipment causes just as much danger. It has been correctly noted that a ban against hands free equipment would be very difficult or impossible to enforce.
    2. The broadly worded proposal would catch safe practices as well as dangerous ones. In particular use in stationary traffic would be an offence, but causes no danger. We have visions of Police activity where phone users stuck in traffic are targeted and the law and the police would be brought into disrepute.
    3. Forcing drivers to purchase hand free equipment would make the dangerous uses of mobile phones harder to detect, and might well encourage mobile phone use at the wheel. The proposed legislation would be sending the false message: “Hands free is safe”.
    4. If the police are unable to enforce the present law adequately, would a new law really make their job any easier?
    5. It’s probable that some people are fully able to safely use a mobile phone while at the wheel. The proposed legislation would make no distinction between safe and dangerous mobile phone use.
    6. All private individuals who have decided to spend £200 on a hands free installation are going to use it. This is another way that the proposed legislation will encourage mobile phone use at the wheel. 
    And our comment on the consultation process is as follows:
      Beware of replies from vested interests. You probably have a great many replies from makers and installers of hands free equipment hoping to use the proposed legislation for profit.
    What side are they on?
    Ban them as soon as possible! There's nothing wrong with the existing laws
    RoSPA AA
    The public ABD
    The government
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    Comments on the above are welcome. If there is a demand we will create a comments page or add to the text on this page. We will be delighted to publish all suitable emails including those whose content we disagree with. Email comment.