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Study: Talking On A Mobile Phone Whilst Driving Is More Dangerous Than Being Drunk Behind The Wheel
Direct Line

March 22, 2002

New research published today (Friday, 22 March) reveals that talking on a mobile phone whilst driving is more dangerous than being drunk behind the wheel.

Tests carried out by scientists at the Transport Research Laboratory established that driving behaviour is impaired more by using a mobile phone than by being over the legal alcohol limit*. In 2000, more than 520 people lost their lives as a result of accidents involving drunk drivers.

Now leading insurer Direct Line, who commissioned the study, is hoping its findings will lend support to MP's calls for a total ban on the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving. A bill introduced by Janet Anderson, MP for Rossendale and Darwen, receives its second reading early next month.

The Direct Line study, carried out over three months by the TRL, involved testing the reaction times and driving performance of a panel of volunteers using a sophisticated driving simulator. Researchers tested how driving impairment was affected by talking on a hand-held mobile phone, a hands-free phone, and when drivers had consumed enough alcohol to be above the legal drink-drive limit.

The results demonstrate that drivers' reaction times were, on average, 30% slower when talking on a hand-held mobile phone compared to being drunk and nearly 50% slower than under normal driving conditions. According to the tests, drivers were less able to maintain a constant speed and found it more difficult to keep a safe distance from the car in front.

Using a hand-held mobile phone had the greatest impact on driving performance. On average it took hand-held mobile phone users half a second longer to react than normal, and a third of a second longer to react compared to when they were drunk. At 70 mph, this half-second difference is equivalent to travelling an additional 46 feet (14m) before reacting to a hazard on the road.

Using a hands-free mobile phone also proved to be a considerable distraction for drivers. In fact, participants in the study stated that they found it easier to drive drunk than when using a mobile phone (hand-held or hands-free)*2.

In addition, drivers using either a hands-free or hand-held mobile phone significantly missed more road warning signs than when drunk.

Direct Line commissioned the TRL research following a recent survey it conducted that found that four out of ten drivers - equivalent to around 10 million UK motorists - admit to using a mobile phone behind the wheel. Dominic Burch, Direct Line's road safety campaign manager, said:

"Most people accept that talking on a mobile phone while driving is distracting, however, many drivers don't appreciate how dangerous it is. That is why we chose to quanitfy the risk involved by comparing driving performance while using a mobile phone to driving while over the legal alcohol limit. Drink driving is clearly an established danger in the eyes of drivers.

"We were surprised to discover that talking on a mobile phone is actually more dangerous than being drunk behind the wheel. In effect, this means that 10 million drivers are partaking in a driving activity that is potentially more dangerous than being drunk.

"Based on these findings, we are supporting Janet Anderson MP in her attempt to introduce new legislation calling for a total ban on the use of hand-held mobiles while driving*3. In additon we are calling on the Government to conduct further research into the dangers of using hands-free mobile phones.

"We believe there needs to be a high profile public awareness campaign informing drivers of the dangers they face by using mobile phones. Eventually we would like to see the use of mobile phones when driving, both hands-held and hands-free, become as socially unacceptable as drink driving."

1. Previous research has shown that phone conversations while driving impair performance. It was difficult to quantify the risk of this impairment because the reference was usually made to normal driving without using a phone. "Worse than normal driving" does not necessarily mean dangerous. There was a need therefore to benchmark driving performance while using a mobile phone to a clearly dangerous level of performance. Driving with a blood alcohol level over the legal limit is an established danger.

Direct Line commissioned the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to undertake extensive research on the dangers of using a mobile phone when driving. This study was designed to quantify the impairment from hands-free and hand-held phone conversations in relation to the decline in driving performance caused by alcohol impairment.

The TRL Driving Simulator was used to provide a realistic driving task in a safe and controlled environment. Twenty healthy experienced drivers were tested in a balanced order on two separate occasions. The drivers were males and females aged 21 to 45 years. Before starting the test drive, they consumed a drink, which either contained alcohol or a similar looking and tasting placebo drink. The quantity of alcohol was determined from the participant's age and body mass using the adjusted Widmark Formula (the UK legal alcohol limit 80mg / 100ml).

The test drive had four driving conditions: on a motorway with moderate traffic; maintaining a safe distance when following another vehicle; attempting to negotiate a bend in the road, and; driving on a dual carriageway with traffic lights.

During each condition the drivers answered a standard set of questions and conversed with the experimenter over a mobile phone. The independent variables in this repeated measures study were normal driving, alcohol impaired driving, and driving while talking on hands-free or hand-held phone.

Main Findings
The results showed a clear trend for significantly poorer driving performance (speed control, following distance and reaction times) when using a phone in comparison to the other conditions.

Driving performance under the influence of alcohol was significantly worse than normal driving, yet significantly better than driving while using a phone. Furthermore, drivers reported that it was easier to drive drunk than to drive while using a phone.

Drivers who were using a hand-held mobile phone reacted a half second slower than when they were driving under normal conditions. Any significant delay in reaction times increases the risk of having a crash and the crash severity.

Hands-free impaired driving less than using a hand-held mobile phone. However, even hands-free phones impair driving more than alcohol.

This study demonstrates beyond doubt that using a mobile phone when driving significantly impairs the drivers' attention to potentially hazardous situations, more so than having a blood alcohol level at the UK legal limit (80mg/100ml). In attempting to perform multiple tasks at the same time drivers subject themselves and other road-users to unacceptable dangers. This research for the first time uncovers just how great those dangers are and underlines the need for a change in the law.

2. Statistics are based on a survey conducted by MORI Financial Services on behalf of Direct Line in July 2001 of 2,000 interviews among adults aged 17 and over, who are Driving License Holders and who have driven at least once in the last month. Further regional data available on request.

3. Janet Anderson MP is introducing a bill making it an offence to use a hand-held mobile telephone while driving. The second reading of her bill will take place on 12th April 2002.

It is not currently a specific offence to use a mobile phone while driving, but drivers can be prosecuted under existing legislation. Regulation 104 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 states that the driver must have full control of the vehicle at all times. The maximum fine for failing to have control of your vehicle is 2,500.

Drivers using mobile phones can also be prosecuted for "careless driving" (section three of the Road Traffic Act 1988) if use of the phone results in their driving falling below the standard expected of a careful and competent driver. This carries a maximum fine of 2,500, licence endorsements of three to nine points and discretionary disqualification.

If a driver's driving falls far below the standard expected of a careful and competent driver, while using a mobile phone, they can be charged with "dangerous driving". This charge carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison, an unlimited fine, disqualification from driving and an extended re-test.

"Causing death by dangerous driving" (section one of the Road Traffic Act 1998, as amended by section one of the Road Traffic Act 1991). This charge is brought for mobile phone use while driving if a driver whose driving falls "far below the standard expected of a careful and competent driver" kills someone. The maximum penalty is imprisonment for ten years and an unlimited fine. Anyone convicted is usually disqualified from driving for a minimum period of two years. In addition, the guilty person must take an extended driving test before they can regain their licence.

Drink-drive penalties have been made more severe as public attitudes to drinking and driving have hardened. The offence of 'causing death by careless driving while unfit (under the influence of drink or drugs) now carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment and a disqualification of at least two years.

Driving or attempting to drive whilst above the legal limit or unfit through drink can result in six months imprisonment plus a fine of 5,000 and a disqualification of at least 12 months (three years automatic ban if convicted twice in 10 years)

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