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.


Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.