I can’t drive, I’m on the phone

Stand on any street corner and you’ll see all the evidence you need that the law against using a mobile ‘phone whilst driving has been rather less effective than the smoking ban.

Position yourself by any busy street corner and you’ll soon gather all the evidence you need that the law against driving with a mobile phone clamped to the side of one’s head has been rather less effective than that other recent attempt to protect public health: the smoking ban.

Whatever the reasons for this, most drivers – guilty or not of a habit arguably far more dangerous than smoking in a pub – do know that hand-held phones pose a risk. What they don’t realise though is that the high level of concentration required to conduct any type of telephone conversation means that so-called “hands-free kits” aren’t much safer.

Indeed, a mounting body of evidence suggests that hands free systems, and the ludicrous headsets that scream out their users’ misguided sense of self-importance, could be as big a threat to road-safety as drink driving.

According to research conducted at the University of Sydney’s Injury Prevention and Trauma Care Division, drivers using mobile phone whilst driving are four times more like to crash. The group’s report makes no distinction between hand-held or hands-free mobile phones. Similar research conducted here in the UK by scientists at Transport Research Laboratory has found that drivers talking on both hand-held and hands-free mobile phones have on average 30 per cent slower reaction times than those who have been drinking, and 50 per cent slower times than sober drivers. Similar results were found during tests at the University of Utah in the US, comparing the use of hands-free phones and drinking at the UK limit.

Emotive stuff, and made even more worrying by the fact that, with a few exceptions, the relentless march of in-car technology is providing drivers with more and not fewer distractions from the serious business of not crashing their cars.

It can easily be argued that today’s increasingly advanced in-car entertainment systems, highly addictive satnav devices and even climate control systems are all helping to put the driver in a homogenised bubble, dangerously removed from the realities of the road. The automotive industry must find a way of steering a safe passage through this technology minefield. It’s either that, or a return to the days when climate control meant a flimsy plastic window handle and the only place you could find a car phone was inside the batmobile.

Jon Excell