Using mobile phones when driving – is merely complying with the law sufficient?

More than a quarter of all road traffic incidents may involve someone who at that time is driving as part of their work (Department for Transport figures).  Furthermore, there is a substantial body of research that shows using a hands-free mobile phone whilst driving is a significant distraction, and substantially increases the risk of the driver having an accident.


Drivers using a hands-free phone get just as distracted as those holding it in their hand, researchers have found. Scientists at the University of Sussex found conversations can cause the driver to visually imagine what they are talking about. This uses a part of the brain normally used to watch the road, the University of Sussex study said. The findings made the case for all phones to be banned from cars, according to the lead researcher. The study involved 20 male and 40 female volunteers who took part in video tests while sitting in a car seat behind a steering wheel. One group of volunteers were allowed to “drive” undistracted while another two heard a male voice from a loudspeaker 3ft (0.9m) away. Those who were distracted by the voice engaging them in conversation took just under a second longer to respond to events, such as a pedestrian stepping off the pavement, an oncoming car on the wrong side of the road or an unexpected vehicle parked at a junction.

This article aims to review whether merely complying with the law is sufficient. It seeks to influence employers and employees in changing policies and behaviours in order to reduce what could be perceived as the most significant risk they face at work.


Policy v Practise

There remain a substantial number of employers who condone the use of hands-free mobile phones whilst driving on company business – after all it’s not against the law! However, this practise is arguably now more problematic to justify. Although these employers may have established driving safely policies, which include restrictions and sometimes prohibitions on mobile phone use, there is sometimes a disconnect with general business demands namely, the need to meet customer response times and liaising with prospective clients. Furthermore, some organisations actually view driving as ‘downtime’ which needs to filled and be made productive by ensuring staff make and receive calls to clients and colleagues alike.

What We Know

Drivers who use a hands free mobile phone are much less aware of what’s happening on the road around them; they fail to maintain proper lane position and steady speed; are more likely to ‘tailgate’ the vehicle in front; and they react more slowly, taking longer to brake and longer to stop. Using a hands-free mobile phone whilst driving does not significantly reduce the risks because the problems are caused mainly by the mental distraction and divided attention of taking part in a phone conversation at the same time as driving.

However, as a society we all receive mixed messages regarding whether hands-free mobile phone use causes significant distraction whilst driving. This is compounded by the fact that the majority of cars are fitted with Bluetooth technology, a technology that promotes safer mobile phone use, but not safe mobile phone use.


The Law

In order to understand the law relating to using hands-free mobile phones when driving, we will have to firstly remind ourselves of the law relating to using hand-held mobile phones when driving. It is illegal to drive using hand-held phones or similar devices. The rules are the same if you’re stopped at traffic lights or queuing in traffic. You can get an automatic fixed penalty notice if you’re caught using a hand-held mobile phone while driving and you will get three penalty points on your licence together with a fine of £100. Your case could also go to court and you could be disqualified from driving and get a maximum fine of £1,000. However, if you are the driver, you can use your mobile phone in a vehicle if you need to call 999 or 112 in an emergency and it’s unsafe or impractical to stop or when you are safely parked.

In relation to using hands-free mobile phones when driving, these may be used legally. However, if the police think you are distracted and not in control of your vehicle, you could still be stopped and penalised.

These offences apply simply if you are seen using a mobile phone while driving. If your driving is bad, or if there is a crash while you are using your phone, you could be prosecuted for careless driving, dangerous driving or, if someone is killed, for causing death by careless or dangerous driving. Fines can be much greater, and prison becomes almost certain if a death is caused.


Hands-Free Mobile Phone Use

As mentioned earlier there is abundant evidence that using any sort of phone has a considerable effect on accident risk, so simply complying with the law does not make you a safe driver. While it’s not a specific offence, using a hands-free phone can have a major bearing on whether or not you could be found guilty of careless or dangerous driving.

So we know that using a hands-free mobile phone presents a significant distraction to drivers and yet it is still common for colleagues and customers to continue with calls in the knowledge that one or both are driving. This behaviour is ‘driven’ by the health and safety culture of organisations, which influences individual behaviours, not least of which, how drivers choose to behave in their own cars.

Adopting even the most straightforward risk assessment approach to this issue would lead to the conclusion that something needs to be done. Herein lies our challenge!


So What Needs To Be Done?

Well, the battleground is changing behaviours of employers and employees in relation to driving and mobile phone use. Employers must develop robust policies, which acknowledge and support a zero tolerance to making and receiving calls whilst driving. Also, employees must plan to make additional stops to pick up messages and to make calls when stationary. ‘That would never work in our company’ could be an expected response from some organisations, however, the task for all of us involved in reducing risk must surely be to challenge that cultural stance. Personal experience has shown that one approach to this is to ask an audience to envisage the scenario that they knocked someone over whilst driving and using a mobile phone – would they still use their phones whilst driving? Of course they wouldn’t!

In practise organisations can take the following steps which go beyond merely complying with the law, but aim to further reduce risks presented by driving for work:

1. Develop and support policies that prohibit the use of hands-free mobile phones whilst driving – ‘zero tolerance’.
2. Ensure policies are communicated and introduced effectively to all stakeholders (business leaders, managers, staff and customers).
3. Silence and place mobile phones out of sight to avoid the temptation to pick up calls.
4. Disconnect mobile phones from in-car Bluetooth connections.
5. Add to personal voice messages that calls cannot be taken at that time because of meetings or because of driving.

When these steps are introduced, it is important that everyone is signed up. Everyone must agree to the policy (including all senior managers), talk positively about the policy and then consistently practise the policy. If there is a perception the organisation is not fully supporting the introduction of a zero tolerance policy to mobile phone use, then individual behaviours are unlikely to change.

So in conclusion, by adopting a risk based approach to this important area of health and safety management, merely complying with the law as it stands does not go far enough. We need to change perceptions and cultures so that organisations eventually talk about a zero tolerance policy to mobile phone use whilst driving as being the norm, and something that does not have to be regularly re-communicated and enforced.

By: Phil Jones is a Chartered Member of IOSH and part owner of Quantum Compliance.