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.
It is illegal in the UK to ride a motorcycle or drive using hand-held phones or similar devices. Drivers can get an automatic fixed penalty notice if caught using one. They will get three penalty points on their licence and a fine of £100. The law currently says drivers can use hands-free phones, sat navs and two-way radios, but if the police think the driver is distracted and not in control of the vehicle, they could get penalised.
Checking for hazards
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. The study showed that asking a simple question - such as, "where did you leave the blue file?"- during phone conversations could mean a driver concentrates on an area four times smaller than normal, because their brain is imagining the room where they left the file, instead of checking for hazards in front of them.
Other studies have suggested that phone conversations in a car are more off-putting than listening to the radio or talking to a passenger, Dr. Hole added.
A passenger chatting in a car is less distracting, the researchers argue, because both stop talking when the driver needs to concentrate.
Alice Bailey, from road safety charity Brake, said: "These are life and death decisions, these extra three car lengths is the difference between a child dying and a child living and we just think the law needs to change.
"We need one clear law. All phones, hand-held and hands-free, need to be banned in cars - the only safe phone is one that is switched off. "How important is any phone conversation that lives are lost?"