Does hands-free technology reduce accident stats?

With increasingly more of us on the go – whether it’s doing the school run, commuting to work, doing the shopping or simply visiting friends and family – the temptation to use a mobile phone whilst driving can sometimes prove all too much.  But being brutal about the issue, is a quick call or text message really worth someone’s life?  Of course not.  Yet using a phone whilst driving is still one of the biggest distractions faced by drivers across the UK.


Since 1st March 2017 penalties for drivers using a mobile handset were doubled to a £200.00 on-the-spot fine plus up to six penalty points which has thankfully led to more drivers relying on hands-free technology.  However, does this new advancement really have the ability to reduce accident stats?  In this blog, we take a look at a few of the facts and figures on this much debated issue.


What are the facts and stats about using hands-free technology?


According to the British charity, ‘Brake’, even the use of hands-free technology remains a hazard to drivers and in fact, the distraction of driving whilst on a phone (whether hand-held or hands-free) can even be worse than drinking whilst over the limit.


In a report compiled by the Department for Transport in 2017 entitled “Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: 2016”, it was proven that driver reaction times are around 30% slower when using a hands-free phone than driving with a blood alcohol level of 80mg alcohol per 100ml blood (which is the current legal limit in England and Wales).  What’s more, the reaction time of a driver using a phone is almost 50% slower than a driver not doing so, with drivers using a phone remaining four times more likely to be involved in a road traffic incident causing injury.


Unfortunately, a survey conducted by Brake and insurance company Direct Line also discovered that, whilst the use of hand-held phones at the wheel were banned as long ago as 2003 (under the Road Vehicle (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986), the proportion of UK drivers using hand held phones between 2006 and 2014 only dropped from 36% to 13% – which can only go to prove that some drivers are still willing to pay whatever price necessary to make that ‘all important’ phone call.


In better news, during the same years, the number of drivers using hands-free phones rose from 22% to 32% although this was undoubtedly due to the change in legislation and the associated penalties.


According to research from K Young in the publication “Driver Distraction: a review of the literature” 2003 drivers attempting to message whilst driving have a 35% slower reaction time – not to mention poor lane control, which is hardly surprising given the level of concentration it takes to send texts, let alone attempt to drive at the same time.


What age group are the highest level of ‘offenders’?


Younger drivers tend to be more likely to take the risk of using mobile phones whilst driving – and for many more reasons than simply making a call.  This naturally puts younger drivers at the higher risk of offending.


The survey conducted by Brake and Direct Line revealed that around half of drivers aged between 25 and 34 readily admitted to either messaging or using SmartPhone apps whilst behind the wheel on a very regular basis (in fact, several times a week and even daily).  This tends to go hand-in-hand with a general rise in SmartPhone usage, combined with increased frequency and duration of use for a whole variety of reasons.


Are there any advances in technology to help reduce accidents?


With mobile phone usage remaining a common cause of accidents and resultant car injury claims, many car manufacturers are taking whatever steps they can to help address the problem – such as the production of Head-Up Display (‘HUD’) technology which displays information on a larger, user-friendly screen.  However, whilst these are being marketed as much safer to use they also encourage a longer distraction period and naturally still require interaction from the driver, with more complex tasks (such as reading or responding to messages) having a more adverse effect on the driver’s overall awareness and subsequent response time.


Hands free v. hand held


Whilst it’s still currently legal to use a hands-free handset whilst driving, there can be little doubt that the actual call poses the greatest distraction and not simply holding the handset itself.  Research also proves that simply speaking on a hands-free phone automatically reduces visual processing power; thus narrowing the driver’s field of vision.  During one research project to prove this very point, drivers were spoken to through a loud speaker and asked very simple questions which necessitated them to think about something other than driving.  The results were quite astounding given that the participants took almost a second longer to respond to a pedestrian stepping off a pavement whilst responding to the questions during the experiment.  Quite a scary finding when you consider that the average reaction time from seeing an emergency situation to actually placing your foot on the brake pedal is 0.7 seconds – and that a car driven at 30mph travels around three car lengths in just one second.  Apply those statistics in a real-life situation and it’s a very harrowing thought indeed.


What’s the impact of workers on the go?


Increasingly more jobs now require us to travel from A to B for a wide range of reasons – whether it’s visiting different work sites, travelling to meet clients or even making deliveries across a given geographical area.  It therefore follows that subsequent phone use among this particular group will be much higher than the ‘average’ phone user, since the phone will often be needed for a multitude of reasons – from making calls, getting directions and even using the internet for work purposes.


In 2012 a survey undertaken by Brake and Direct Line found that over half of ‘at-work’ drivers admitted talking on a phone (whether hands-free or hand-held) whilst driving, compared to 36% of drivers who were not using their vehicle for work.  In the same study over a third of at-work drivers said they used a hand-held phone whilst driving compared to just a quarter of drivers who were not driving during the course of employment.


What are employers doing about drivers on the go?


Employers have the ability (and are very much encouraged) to introduce their own set of rules for those drivers who need to use their phone whilst on the go.  During a survey undertaken by Brake Professional (the charity’s service working specifically on fleet safety), it was discovered that four in ten companies have a policy which states drivers mustn’t adjust or communicate using any in-vehicle technology whilst driving.  Employers can also be held liable for any employee found using a hand-held mobile at the wheel; or for “causing or permitting” drivers to do this.


That said, regardless of company policies, many drivers argue that their jobs would simply be impossible without using a phone – particularly in cases where they need to source directions or phone ahead to get required access or parking near specific buildings.


Are there any exceptions to the rule?


Only one.  Under current legislation, the only exemption from using a hand-held phone whilst driving is when the driver has reason to call the emergency services and there is nowhere safe to stop.


What’s the current legal position on the use of hands free devices?


Whilst charities such as Brake continue to pursue a ban on all hands-free devices, it’s currently legal to use a hands-free device in any vehicle.  That said, Rule 149 of the Highway Code specifically highlights the dangers of using them and recommends they be switched off until such time as the driver finds a safe place to stop.


Current penalties


We’ve already seen that the penalty for a driver using a hand-held phone (or similar device) can receive an on-the-spot fine of £200.00 plus up to six penalty points being endorsed on their licence.  However, for new drivers an endorsement of six points will lead to them losing their driving licence, whilst ‘professional’ drivers, such as coach or lorry drivers, can be suspended and fined up to £2,500.00 if caught using a hand-held phone at the wheel.




Whilst hands-free technology appears to have gone at least some way towards reducing accident stats it seems there’s still a very long way to go in terms of improvement.


Research and studies remain adamant that, whilst hands-free phones are a definite improvement on the hand-held type, they are still very capable of causing driver distraction and subsequent accidents, so the best advice can only be to stay away from the phone whilst driving.  The consequences simply aren’t worth it.