Cognitive Daily

As laws against driving with cell phones continue to go on the books around the world, Britain has upped the ante:

Drivers caught using a hand-held mobile or who do not have control of their vehicle while using a hands-free kit will be hit with a fine of 60 pounds.

They will also get three penalty points on their licence.

“Research shows that talking on a mobile phone while driving affects your concentration and ability to react to dangerous situations,” said Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander.

The headline of the story implies that the biggest news is the bigger fine, but to me, the second part of the law is more important. It’s not just driving with a handheld that will get you the penalty, but also driving with a hands-free kit. As we’ve reported on CogDaily before:

Researchers found no difference between people who used a handheld or hands-free cell phone, and no difference between radio/audiobook listeners and the driving-only condition. However, the cell-phone talkers missed more than twice as many red lights as the other participants

So there’s no difference in driving impairment between using a handheld phone compared to the hands-free kit. In a second test, Strayer and Johnson found that the difficulty of the conversation, not the type of phone, had a more important impact on driving errors.

The British law allows police to impose a significant fine for using a hands-free kit if they don’t have control over their vehicle, which, arguably, would be the only way to enforce such a law short of banning hands-free kits entirely.

A question for legal experts out there: If a driver is talking on the phone — hands-free or not — and an accident occurs, is that admissible as evidence that the driver caused the accident? It certainly appears that it should be.


  1. #1 James Hrynyshyn
    January 23, 2007

    There is indeed nothing new in the finding that there is no difference between hands-free and handset cell phone use while driving. This has been widely reported and yet the idea that hands-free sets are safe to use while behind the wheel is widespread and pernicious. How do we go about spreading the word?

  2. #2 Tim
    January 23, 2007

    I would think a hands-free set would be relatively comparable to just talking to another person in the car… is that not so? Could you point me to work that suggests that?


  3. #3 Dave Munger
    January 23, 2007


    The issue is the difficulty of the conversation. A complicated or emotional conversation would distract a driver just as much, whether or not the conversation is on a mobile phone. Some of the cell phone research has participants solving puzzles or competing under a time limit while “driving,” which may be more difficult than an ordinary conversation.

    Drivers should be aware that any distraction, whether it’s toddlers in the back seat or an intensive conference call, will impair driving ability.

    I’m not sure if the law should go as far as it does in Britain, but I do think that if there are laws about cell phone use, they should acknowledge the research demonstrating hands-free phones aren’t any safer.

    Another issue is whether we can compensate for the impairment due to cell phones, and we’ve got a post about a very interesting study which addresses this issue.

  4. #4 Jan
    January 23, 2007

    Also, passengers are right there in the car with you. They can assess the situation, know when to keep quiet if the situation requires the driver’s full attention, or even warn the driver for potential hazards. And the quality of the transmission is usually better as well of course !

    By the way, the interference seems to work both ways : driving also appears to disrupt cell-phone conversation (Radeborg, Briem, & Hedman, 1999)


  5. #5 Dave Munger
    January 23, 2007

    Jan, I’d be interested to see if you know of a study backing up the assertion that being there with the driver reduces the risk. The research I’ve seen suggests this is not the case: the passenger does not help the driver; conversation with passengers is just as bad as cell phone conversation.

  6. #6 Teresa Michelsen
    January 23, 2007

    Personally, I find that I am a better driver when on a cell phone than when talking to passengers, simply because I rarely allow myself to talk on a cell phone while driving, and if I do it I am hyper-aware of the risks. It is when I am talking to friends in my car that I let my guard down and find myself doing dumb things, to the point that I have started telling my passengers that I don’t drive well with distractions. It’s not just any conversation that does it – more the depth of the conversation – so in that sense I agree with the “complexity” idea.

  7. #7 Jan
    January 23, 2007

    Dave, I remember one publication from the same group from the University of Utah :

    Drews, F. A., Pasupathi, M., & Strayer, D. L. (2004). Passenger and cell-phone conversations in simulated driving. In the Proceedings of the 48nd Annual Meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (pp 2210-2212).
    (it’s available on their site)

    (and just to be clear: I wasn’t arguing that passengers can’t be responsible for visual or cognitive distraction. I was merely pointing out some factors which, given a similar type of conversation, could possibly reduce the negative effects of the passenger versus the cell-phone conversation.)


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