Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Distracted drivers

A study published in the British Medical Journal today suggests that using a mobile phone while driving increases the risk of having an accident four-fold.

Researchers examined the phone records of 456 drivers in Perth, Australia. The increased risk was the same whether drivers used a handheld phone or some form of hands-free device. The authors of the study conclude that while laws restricting phone use while driving are effective, they should be extended to include hands-free setups.

Reacting to the study, a spokesman for the UK Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) told BBC News: 'We hope that the people who callously think that their phone call is more important than somebody's life will get the message eventually when they see more and more research like this.'

The research findings are largely plausible and fit in with experimental research which suggests that talking on a phone while driving is a significant distraction. However, some of the emotive language used in relation to phone use is misplaced.

Another study conducted in the USA, and quoted by RoSPA in a report in 2003, looked at the small number of crashes - eight per cent - that are caused by driver distraction. An object or person outside the car was blamed for about 29 per cent of these accidents; fiddling with the car stereo accounted for about 11 per cent; and being distracted by other passengers for 10 per cent. Mobile phones accounted for 1.5 per cent of accidents caused by distraction - in other words, for 0.12 per cent of all accidents.

Even if mobile phone use has increased a little since then, the number of accidents caused by phones is still very small. The figures quoted by RoSPA suggest that banning car stereos, bored children and argumentative passengers would make more sense than banning phones. Nobody has suggested these things because they would be seen, rightly, as ridiculous. And the idea that hands-free devices are just as bad as hand-held phones seems unlikely. Driving one-handed or with a phone jammed between head and shoulder surely must compound the distraction of the call itself.

A road accident is, as the new Australian study notes, a 'rare outcome'. As new figures for the UK published in June 2005 demonstrate, road accident rates are falling, and have been for many years. In 2004, there was one road fatality for every 93million miles travelled on Britain's roads. Given that mobiles cause only a fraction of accidents, the risk of phone use causing a fatal accident is very small. RoSPA's talk of drivers 'callously' putting calls before lives seems hysterical.

Driving while making a phone call, fiddling with the stereo or trying to read a map should be avoided. Drivers have a responsibility to focus their attention on the road as much as possible. But it's one thing to advise drivers of potential hazards; it's quite another to attempt to ban any behaviour that is deemed risky. The effect is not to improve safety but to increase the petty regulation of our lives.

First published on spiked's Don't panic page.