##Christopher Bullock--left## A recent article in New Scientist confirmed what many in the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) have long known – that the brain is capable of doing two things at once, but if they both require conscious attention there will be a price: you cannot necessarily do them as well together as you could separately.
A case in point is the epidemic we are seeing on our streets every day – many drivers seem to think that it is safe to conduct a telephone conversation while driving a car.
Great play has been made of the idea that 'hands-free' phones allow drivers to safely use a mobile. This argument is literally brainless, because it completely ignores the fact that it is not just your hands that are involved in these activities. Your brain is used to control a car and to conduct a telephone conversation.
Clients often ask us if using a phone is more dangerous than listening to the radio or talking to a passenger. This completely ignores differences in the mental demands of these activities.
Listening to the radio doesn't require me to participate in conversation when I need to attend to a road hazard. And many car passengers will pause in their speech when they see that the driver needs to give full attention to the road.
The caller at the other end of the phone, however, who is cheerfully oblivious of the driver's situation, might well make demands on the limited attention of the driver at a critical moment. And most drivers seem to find it difficult to be ruthless in interrupting their conversation when the road conditions demand it.
The New Scientist listed strong evidence that phoning while driving is dangerous from Donald Redelmeier and Robert Tibshirani at the University of Toronto. I am pleased to say that this evidence has been promoted by the Department for Transport (DfT), which has incorporated it into its Think! safety campaign.
The experts studied 699 car drivers who had been involved in a collision and who also owned a mobile phone. By scrutinising their phone bills, the drivers' statements and police records, they established that the risk of a collision when you're using a mobile phone is more than four times as high as when you're not.
For users of hands-free phones, the risk of collision appears, if anything, higher than for hand-held phones – nearly six times the level when not using a phone. Who knows, perhaps hands-free phones tempt drivers to carry on their call while carrying out more difficult manoeuvres?
The IAM has until now resisted calls for special legislation to deal with drivers using hand-held phones, arguing that the police already have sufficient powers. In our submission to the Government, we stressed that we are happy to support the proposed legislation to ban hand-held mobile phones while driving – especially the idea of three penalty points for offenders. But the problem needs better education and more enforcement: in our view, proposed new legislation alone will not solve the problem.
We know the police do act sometimes when they see this offence being committed. But it often seems to responsible motorists that these one-armed merchants are getting away with it. Is that phone call so urgent that it is worth risking your life – let alone the lives of others? So-called 'phoney drivers' are a major irritation and a road safety hazard.
We should be gathering hard data about how many crashes are caused by drivers on mobile phones. STATS 19, the police road accident data sheet, is the place to do this and we would like the police and the DfT to include these details where mobile phones have been a distraction leading to an accident.
Our advice to IAM Fleet clients is pragmatic – but puts road safety first. Never use a hand-held phone when you are driving. Even if you have a hands-free system, you should avoid using the phone while driving as – at the risk of repeating myself – it distracts you from the main task.
If you receive a call while driving only take the call if your 'cockpit workload' at the time allows it, keep your conversation short and tell the caller that you can't talk at the moment. Then find somewhere legal, safe and convenient to stop and return the call.
Cars are not going to go away and neither are mobile phones. It is only by educating drivers into the best way to manage both that we will start to change the 'phoney driver' culture.'