Yes, we need our hands-free phones.

A two-lane dual carriageway approaching a roundabout with a lay-by with two trucks, a van and a snack wagon parked in it leaving almost no space. There are trees to the left of the lay-by.
A lay-by outside Bristol: we will be needing a lot more of these if we will need to stop to take any phone call. (Image by Neil Owen.)

Last week it was reported that the UK Parliament’s transport select committee (a committee of MPs drawn proportionally from each party with seats in the Commons) had recommended that consideration be given to the idea of banning the use of mobile phones at the wheel with or without a hands-free kit (which usually means connected with Bluetooth to a driver’s GPS or car stereo). It is already illegal to hold a mobile phone while at the wheel and it carries an automatic six penalty points (twelve points usually equals a year’s ban), which is generally considered reasonable given that using a hand-held phone while in motion can cause a very serious accident, especially when the driver is driving a truck, although the same cannot be said for using one when stopped at traffic lights or by the side of the road with the handbrake on. The ‘convenience’ of using a hand-held phone does not outweigh the risks, which is why they were banned in 2003. According to Politics Home, ministers said that “they accepted such a move would pose ‘practical challenges’, but added that ‘just because something is difficult this does not mean that we should not do it’”, the same idiotic logic being applied to no-deal Brexit right now. However, we really do need our hands-frees, particularly those of us who drive for a living.

The majority of new cars sold in the UK now, and a fair number of the newer trucks, have hands-free systems built into the stereos. We use these for all sorts of things: our employers or customers call us to tell us that a job has been cancelled, delayed or brought forward, or to warn us of some accident or delay on the route we may be going or that there is some other change to our schedule. We use them to call customers (or our employers) and tell them that we are delayed, or to ask for exact directions about how to get to their premises or into them. Sometimes we have to ring our families to tell them we’re on the way home, or have been delayed, or to ask them to get something out of the freezer or something similar. Some of us have to keep in touch with job agencies, and if we cannot take the call until the next stopping place, there’s a good chance we will lose the job. We also use them to notify the police of hazards such as stationary cars on running lanes of ‘smart’ motorways. There often is no convenient stopping place; while many main roads have lay-bys, motorways often have no service areas for 30 or 40 miles (sometimes, on a given route, it can be much further than that) and that means 30 minutes or an hour or more of driving. Being able to take a voice call using a hands-free phone can save us a very long wasted journey and a lot of wasted fuel, and money.

I am sceptical of claims from road safety lobbyists that using a hands-free phone is no safer than holding the phone in one’s hand; if anything, this may be because the risks of holding the phone to one’s ear with one’s hand while steering the car along a straight stretch of road with the other are overstated (it’s significant that radios were not banned when phones were) or that some kits (particularly older ones) are unreliable and awkward. What may cause a distraction is if the driver is too wrapped up in his conversation to pay proper attention to the road, or if he turns to read papers on his passenger seat (or shuffle them), but this does not account for the majority of phone calls taken with a hands-free and there a host of other in-car distractions, such as sat-navs (specifically their reprogramming), the stereo, passengers (who aren’t always mindful of a driver’s need to concentrate, especially when they are children), the scenery or things going on in the street and even the dashboard (such as when the driver has their eyes glued to the speedometer to avoid exceeding the speed limit when approaching a camera mounted on a hill), and none of the devices mentioned in this list are facing a ban. In my experience, there is often nowhere in many modern vehicles to mount a phone and a sat-nav securely within touching distance; sat-nav mounts are not standardised. Fixing these issues would mean some collaboration within both the motor and device industries but it would reduce the distraction caused by an insecurely-mounted device, or one at more than arm’s length, quite considerably.

Hands-free systems are built into cars for a reason: because people need to communicate while at the wheel, and they need to do so with their hands on the wheel. Safety campaigners in general want to restrict people’s freedom and to use legislation to reduce risk, but risk is a fact of life when we are dependent on large metal boxes that can do 30mph in any town environment and 50 or 60mph elsewhere. Unless the government proposes to install lay-bys on every major road, including every motorway, every half a mile or so, which would be prohibitively expensive, and allowing drivers to stop pretty much anywhere in towns, which would cause a lot of congestion, there is simply no way anyone who drives for a living can do without a means of communication with home or work. Driving while distracted is already an offence, and causing an accident while distracted a worse one, and the government should be emphasising these facts, encouraging drivers to keep conversations short and snappy and to save the conference or heart-to-heart until later.

Image source: Neil Owen, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence.

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