Hundreds of thousands of company car drivers are free to use a hands-free phone while driving, despite mounting evidence suggesting their use is dangerously distracting.
More than two-thirds (70.2%) of respondents to a Fleet News poll said their company car policy permitted their use, while just 29.2% reported a ban had been put in place by their employers.
The poll result comes in the wake of further research suggesting that talking on a hands-free phone can be just as distracting as talking on a hand-held mobile.
The study, from psychologists at the University of Sussex, shows that drivers who are engaged in conversations that spark their visual imagination are much less able to spot and react to potential hazards.
When the drivers involved in the study were asked about a subject that required them to visualise it, they focused on a smaller area of the road ahead of them and failed to see hazards, even when they looked directly at them.
The researchers claim their evidence shows conversations may use more of the brain’s visual processing resources than previously understood.
Having a conversation that requires a driver to use their visual imagination creates competition for the brain’s processing capacity that is also focusing on driving. This results in drivers missing road hazards that they might otherwise have spotted.
Arval has operated a mobile phone ban, whether hand-held or hands-free, for all company car drivers since 2003.
Customer engagement manager Tracey Fuller said: “Our drivers understand the risks associated with using a mobile phone, because we continuously educate, train and support them to be safe while they drive.”
The leasing company ensures drivers are still able to meet customer needs while driving by making sure there is sufficient office-based support for its customers should they need it.
However, Fuller added: “I understand the challenges businesses face when they look at implementing a complete mobile phone ban, but I would encourage all businesses to consider in full the risks their drivers face if they are permitted, or even encouraged, to make hands-free calls whilst driving.
“I would also ask anyone: ‘How do you know it can’t work for your business if you don’t try?’ Lots of companies that now implement mobile phone bans trialled it first, engaging with a range of stakeholders in the process.”
Iron Mountain, working with insurance company Zurich, has similarly employed a ban on the use of all mobile phones, including hands-free devices, for a number of years.
Rory Morgan, head of logistics support Western Europe at Iron Mountain Europe, told Fleet News he has been swayed by a mounting body of evidence and his own experiences.
“Only last week, I was the passenger in a taxi in Paris where the driver rang a colleague to get directions and was oblivious to the large speed bump coming up and we hit it at speed,” said Morgan.
The Environment Agency also banned hands-free mobile communications in vehicles 12 months ago, following a review of available research from across the globe.
The University of Sussex study is the latest to look at the increased dangers involved with driving and mobile phone use. Previous research has estimated that drivers who perform a secondary task at the wheel, like using a mobile, are up to three times more likely to crash.
In addition, the effect of talking on a phone while driving has already been shown to be worse than drinking certain amounts of alcohol. Research from the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) showed driver reaction times were 30% slower while using a hands-free phone than driving with a blood alcohol level of 80mg alcohol per 100ml blood (the current limit in England and Wales), and nearly 50% slower than driving under normal conditions.
The researchers from Sussex also say there are still differences between a hands-free conversation and a chatty passenger.
A passenger will usually moderate the conversation when road hazards arise, whereas someone on the other end of a phone is oblivious to the other demands on the driver and so keeps talking.
Kevin Clinton, head of road safety at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), said: “All the research clearly shows that using a hands-free phone does not significantly reduce the risks, because the problems are caused mainly by the mental distraction and divided attention of using a phone at the same time as driving.”
Around 22% of crashes could be caused by some kind of distraction and new research from Goodyear, as part of its Young Driver programme, has revealed some worrying statistics.
Almost a quarter (23%) of young drivers have had an accident or near miss in the past 12 months due to being distracted behind the wheel and nearly one in five (18%) had driven through a red light due to being distracted.
Mobile phone usage was a major issue, with 42% of young drivers saying they have used their mobile phone illegally while driving in the past year. Of those, 29% admitted to calling or answering the phone, 28% said they have texted a friend while behind the wheel, while one in 10 admitted to logging into social networks.
The road safety charity Brake wants existing mobile phone legislation extended to hands-free devices, but the risk of being prosecuted for using a hand-held phone was not a deterrent for almost a quarter (23%) of respondents to the young driver study.
A Government consultation on raising the fine from £100 to £150 and increasing the penalty points for non-HGV drivers from three to four closed on March 15 and its response is due to be published imminently.
More than a quarter (27%) of motorists asked by the RAC about the proposed changes said they were a good idea, but a majority (69%) said they will not make any difference.
The consultation was also seeking feedback on a proposal to increase penalty points from three to six for those that hold a large goods vehicle (HGV) licence and commit the offence while driving an HGV. More than half (58%) of those surveyed thought this was a good idea and, in this instance, only 38% didn’t think it would make any difference whatsoever.
However, while it remains to be seen what the Government will decide to do, Fuller argued that the benefits of implementing a ban on all phone use behind the wheel go beyond road safety.
“There are health and wellbeing benefits as drivers without the pressure to make and receive calls whilst driving will be less stressed,” she said. “They will take more regular breaks to allow time to pick up messages and return calls.”