Driven to Distraction – The dangers of using mobile phones whilst driving

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Driven to Distraction – The dangers of using mobile phones whilst driving

14th June 2010

New research released by the University of Utah has shown that the driving performance of 97.5% of drivers is dramatically reduced when using a mobile phone. This will come as little surprise to most but the more shocking revelation is that this is the same for those on a hands-free device.

This short article will look at the effect mobile phone use has on driving performance, the comparison between mobile phone use and drink driving, and how much a driver fails to 'see' when engaged in conversation.

The link between attention and performance is well known, the more attention we pay to a task, the better we will perform. However, human attention has a limited capacity, and this becomes most apparent when we attempt to perform more than one task at a time. A recent paper by Watson and Strayer, 'Supertaskers: Profiles in Extraordinary Multi-tasking Ability', has demonstrated that the performance of one task can only flourish at the expense of another. The research revealed that driving performance is significantly impaired by mobile phone conversations. For example, when drivers talked on either a hand-held or hands-free phone, brake reaction times were delayed by up to 20%, following distances increased by 30% as drivers failed to keep pace with traffic, object detection was impaired and accident rates were increased. The National Safety Council estimates that 28% of all accidents and fatalities on American highways in 2009 were caused by drivers using mobile phones. This equates to approximately 1.6 million road traffic collisions. As the results between hand-held and hands-free phones showed no notable differences the report strongly suggests that legislative initiatives restricting hand-held but permitting hands-free devices are not likely to eliminate the problems associated with using mobile phones whilst driving.

In 2006 Strayer also conducted an experiment to determine the performance of drivers who had been drinking and those who were using mobile phones. "Evidence suggests that the relative risk of being in a traffic accident while using a cell phone is similar to the hazard associated with driving with a blood alcohol level at the legal limit," said Strayer, a professor at the University of Utah. The results revealed that drivers using a hands-free or hand-held device were slower to respond to events on the road and were more likely to be involved in an accident than drivers who were not using a phone. The drivers who had a blood alcohol concentration at 0.08%, the legal limit, drove more aggressively, followed closer to the vehicle in front and braked with greater force. Strayer's data suggests that the deterioration in the performance of drivers using mobile phones may be as profound as in those who drink drive. The notable difference being that the attention of a driver on his phone is only impaired whilst having a conversation - once the call is over, attention is re-focused on driving. The effects of alcohol, however, persist for prolonged periods of time, are systemic, and lead to chronic impairment.

A particular danger that quickly became apparent during Strayer's experiments was how drivers missed visual cues when distracted by a phone conversation. The principal findings were: (1) subjects engaged in mobile phone conversations missed twice as many traffic signals as those who were not, (2) subjects took longer to react to the signals that they did detect, (3) these deficits were equivalent for both hand-held and hands-free phone users which indicates that the interference was not due to peripheral factors such as holding the phone but the act of talking itself.

Deborah Johnson, a partner at Fentons Solicitors, is keen for the government to put an end to the situation where using a hand-held phone is illegal, but a hands-free one isn't.

"The evidence is overwhelming - using a hands-free phone is no safer than using a hand-held one, it is the conversation that is the distraction," said Deborah, a trustee of Brake, the road safety charity.

"The person on the other end of the phone can not tell when you are trying to manoeuvre or slow down so they will keep on talking, expecting you to answer and causing a distraction. Safe driving requires full attention to the road. If you need to make a call or check a message, simply pull up in a safe place."

It is not a revelation to suggest that driving whilst on a mobile phone is dangerous, but it is perhaps more shocking to realise that using a hands-free phone could be just as fatal. Both devices lead to significant impairments in driving performance and it is clear that their use diverts attention away from the immediate task of driving. As such a driver is unable to acknowledge and react to stimuli on the road. Strayer calls this distracted state 'cell-phone induced inattention-blindness'. If we consider that 85% of the mobile phone subscribers in America use their phones whilst in the car, over 116 million people are driving 'blind'.

How can Fentons Solicitors help?
Fentons has a specialist department experienced in handling claims relating to road traffic collisions. If you think that you have a case or require further information, contact Fentons on 0800 019 1297 or fill in the online claims questionnaire.

National Safety Council (2010). NSC Estimates 1.6 Million Crashes Caused by Cell Phone use and Texting (Press release date January 12, 2010. On the web at

Strayer, D. L., Drews, F. A., & Crouch, D. L. (2006). 'A comparison of the cell phone driver and the drunk driver'. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, (Summer), 381-391

Strayer, D. L., Drews, F. A., & Johnston, W. A. (2003). 'Inattention-blindness behind the wheel [Abstract]'. Journal of Vision, Vol 3(9):157

Strayer, D. L., Drews, F. A. & Johnston, W. A. (2003). 'Cell phone induced failures of visual attention during simulated driving'. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol 9: 23-23

Watson, J. M., & Strayer, D. L., (2010). 'Supertaskers: Profiles in Extraordinary Multi-tasking Ability'. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review