This is why making calls on the road is dangerous – even if you go hands-free

Those were the days, eh. Image: Getty.

Get caught using your smartphone while driving in the UK and you’ll be in serious trouble. Authorities recently doubled the penalties for using a handset behind the wheel to six points on your licence and a £200 fine. Yet the law – and the car industry itself – hasn’t caught up with the equal dangers of hands-free phone calls while driving. The Conversation

A week after the latest penalties for using a handset while driving came into force, the Advertising Standards Agency banned a Jaguar advert which highlighted the benefits of hands-free technology. The advert claimed that Wi-Fi and integrated apps ensure that “drive time is no longer downtime... without compromising safety”. The ASA ruled the advert promoted unsafe driving practices by implying that attention can be shared between tasks.

You might not think it, but research shows talking on a hands-free phone while driving is just as dangerous as using a handset. In fact, drivers remain dangerously distracted even after they’ve hung up. Thankfully, this message is starting to get through, as the ASA’s decision shows. But the fact that the advert was made in the first place, that in-car, hands-free technology is readily available – and that the law doesn’t prevent its use – show how far society still has to go.

What’s the problem?

Decades of research has demonstrated drivers on the phone are four times more likely to be involved in an accident than undistracted drivers, regardless of whether they’re using a hand-held or hands-free system. This increased risk lasts for around five minutes after the call has ended, suggesting that interacting with the technology isn’t the only issue. It seems that phone conversations take the driver’s focus away from their primary task of driving, even after they’ve hung up. People are largely unaware that their minds wander like this, or that it can affect their driving.

Distracted drivers take longer to react to hazards, miss other hazards altogether, and make poor decisions about their speed and distance from other road users. Research has also shown that the type of conversation a driver has, along with the difficulty of the driving situation, can further affect performance.

Some researchers suggest that these effects are down to increased “cognitive workload”, the amount of information your brain can process at any one time. This makes sense, as we have a limited supply of attentional resources, which include all the resources needed to perceive things in our vision, understand what we hear, and plan for upcoming actions. When driving, your workload may be relatively manageable, yet adding a phone conversation increases that workload. If the demands of driving suddenly increase – for example when the vehicle ahead brakes sharply – your workload may become too much to manage and your performance in one or both tasks can break down.

Other research more specifically suggests that workload increases to these unmanageable levels because the two tasks need the same attentional resources, leading to competition between the tasks. A driver can’t share their attention between tasks effectively because both tasks are drawing on the same limited pool of resources. If the resources needed for driving are being used on a phone conversation, the driver may not be able to fully focus, making them more likely to miss important parts of the driving scene.

We can see evidence of increased workload by looking at eye movements. When a driver talks on the phone, they move their eyes less around the driving scene. They use their mirrors less and tend to focus more on the area directly ahead of them, rather than to the sides of the scene. This reduction in their functional field of view could explain why distracted drivers often fail to react to hazards in their peripheral vision.

Yet the evidence reveals something even more worrying. Rather than simply not looking at all areas of the scene, distracted drivers can look at something yet still not register it. In one simulation study, drivers who were heavily involved in a phone conversation failed to detect traffic signals and were less likely to recall billboards at the side of the road.

By tracking the drivers’ eye movements, the researchers showed that distracted and undistracted drivers viewed the billboards the same amount. But those on the phone did not have the cognitive resources available to process what their eyes were looking at. They looked but failed to see.

Talking to passengers

What these issues don’t mean is that drivers shouldn’t talk to passengers. While adding any extra workload to a driver can be distracting, phone conversations are more distracting because the people talking don’t have a shared visual environment. The person on the other end of the phone can’t see what the driver can and so don’t pause the conversation when the driver needs to concentrate more on the road, for example at junctions.

One study neatly demonstrated this by comparing drivers’ conversations when talking to a passenger, someone on the phone, or a blind-folded passenger. The regular passengers stopped talking when driving became more challenging, but the blindfolded and phone conversation partners did not.

Having two eyes on the road categorically does not equate to “safe” driving. Yet current laws still perpetuate the myth that hands-free is safe, a message echoed in the media and supported by growth in hands-free technology in cars. Drivers need to know the real dangers of hands-free phone use so they can make informed decisions about how safe their actions are.

Gemma Briggs is a lecturer in psychology at the The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.