Plenty of ‘tut-tutting’ and no doubt quite a few more crude reactions followed the recent headline “senior police officer crashes into car while trying to make hands-free phone call”, after assistant chief constable Kerrie Wilson crashed into a Hyundai i30 travelling in the other direction when attempting to make a Bluetooth phone call from her MINI Countryman.

The court was reportedly told that Mrs Wilson had become distracted for just a few seconds through trying to find the relevant button on the steering wheel of the car she had only been driving for a week and was unfamiliar with.

In this instance, the other driver wasn’t seriously injured or killed, although whiplash and bruising still prompted them being taken to hospital, and it’s worth considering that anxious or elderly drivers may experience a long-lasting dilution of their confidence even from such a relatively minor collision.

The dangers of learning controls while driving

For fleet managers and also perhaps contract hire delivery agents conducting handovers, the story highlights just how important it is for drivers to familiarise themselves with a car or van’s controls prior to setting off for the first time. Equally, private and company car fleet drivers, including the ‘grey fleet’, should think twice before fiddling on the move with infotainment and sat nav systems, car settings, Bluetooth phone interfaces and other features, which are now fitted as standard to many models.

Some models from Audi, Tesla, Volvo and others have even consigned basic vehicle settings such as climate temperature and electric window operation to tablet-like touchscreens, in the name of design minimalism, and a number of automotive and other voices understandably can’t help thinking that this approach is dangerous and rather ironic considering many of the OEMs’ proud safety boasts and focusses. On the other hand, though, we welcome the manufacturers that have configured many of their cars’ settings such as initial phone handset pairing to become disabled except when stationery.

Should all phone use by drivers be banned?

Licence Bureau is one fleet organisation that certainly thinks so and believes that a complete blanket ban on mobile phone usage while driving, including hands-free kits and similar, is “long overdue and enforceable”, and has given its full support to government moves to potentially introduce such legislation.

Research by Kwik Fit has identified that over 2.7 million UK drivers have crashed during the last two years in circumstances involving being distracted by a phone, and another study of 2,000 motorists found that almost 25% of them admitted to reading SMS text messages while behind the wheel. An interactive game produced by Kwik Fit has revealed that hands-free communication can prove just as distracting and therefore dangerous to drivers, other road users and pedestrians.

New technology from police forces

Earlier this year, a number of UK police forces including Hampshire and Thames Valley began trialling new technology that can detect vehicles passing by in which a mobile phone is being used without an in-built native Bluetooth system or aftermarket kit of some kind, a warning symbol flashed at offending motorists.

It was disappointing to learn that these roadside devices aren’t able to distinguish between a ‘held’ phone used by a driver or passenger, but it’s a step in the right direction towards addressing statistics like it being four times more likely to crash when using a phone while driving, and twice as likely to be involved in a fatal crash if texting behind the wheel, compared to drink-driving.

Licence Bureau’s MD rightly suggests that ANPR technology and cameras intelligent enough to identify single vehicle occupancy could surely be implemented quite quickly to make such deterrents more effective and accurate. The firm has actually introduced a zero-tolerance policy over mobile phone use while driving on company business, which even extends to requiring staff to promptly end a call they receive from someone who they believe is phoning whilst driving.

Are passenger conversations just as distracting?

We and certain other motoring voices don’t feel that a blanket ban on mobile phone use while driving will be as fair and easy to implement and enforce as advocates hope, though. First of all, plenty of other distractions unarguably divert drivers’ attention, from music, vehicles and people in the vicinity, to weather, scenery and, most notably, in-car conversations, whether with perhaps boisterous children or vociferous colleagues.

“If we’re going to ban mobiles in cars, why not ban squabbling children in the back too?”, Matthew Scott rightly questioned in his Telegraph article. After all, a road safety driving distraction study from Australian university QUT found that any type of conversation can increase a driver’s reaction times by as much as 40%, which equates to a delayed response of up to 6.8 miles. Dr Haque, who presented the findings at a seminar, explained that “it was the cognitive load required to hold a conversation that was the distraction”, and although most of their work was directed towards held and hands-free phone use while driving, the same principles apply to passenger conversations.

This is echoed by a study from the U-M Transport Research Institute, which identified “no statistical difference in terms of keeping in the correct lane or using proper steering behaviour between people talking on a cell phone or those conversing with a passenger” and concluded that “all forms of ‘non-driving’ behaviour resulted in at least some degraded performance, depending on the measure being considered.”

It would be impossible and morally wrong to even attempt to introduce any legislation on in-vehicle ‘non-driving’ behaviour, though, with common sense having to prevail at the end of the day – something that we hope the majority of private and company car fleet drivers will exercise.

Christopher Cocchiarella’s MinnPost piece nicely explains why conversations between vehicle occupants are ultimately less distracting than those between the driver and someone on the other end of a phone, though:

“The passenger can serve as an extra set of eyes and ears on the road. When you have a conversation in the car, that passenger is aware of the driver, car, road, and traffic, which can help the driver heed attention. Conversely, the brain has to work much harder to process a conversation when the person you’re talking to isn’t physically present.”

We would add that it depends, of course, on the nature of the conversation between the driver and one or more passengers, with any emotive, particularly loud or otherwise ‘unusual’ levels of communication naturally likely to pose more or a safety risk and hence best left until stationery.

In favour of hands-free in-car phone use

Another argument in support of hands-free Bluetooth mobile phone use continuing to be legally allowed in the UK is that many drivers from emergency services, taxi drivers and executive chauffeurs to delivery drivers and plenty of others rely on in-vehicle hands-free mobile phone use as a necessary part of their jobs. IAM RoadSmart may unsurprisingly disagree, but major motoring organisations such as the RAC are on the side of drivers whose jobs rely on phone communication.

Dr Dipankar Bose, Consultant Anaesthetist at Warwick Hospital, wrote to The Telegraph revealing: “When I and any other colleagues of mine are on call, we are physically present or constantly available for advice on the phone. That includes the time on the road while driving to and from the hospital. Sometimes we might have to turn back to respond to an emergency. If we were unable to pick up the phone and talk while driving home, I dread to think of the consequences.”

We agree with her sentiments and feel it’s vital that continued use should be permitted for such important drivers. Yes, it is concerning that despite penalty points and fines having increased considerably, illegal use of mobiles behind the wheel rose again during 2018, but we share the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW)’s view that a ban would be unenforceable and that “the police service cannot and should not be responsible for solving this issue alone.” Their suggestion sounds reasonable that a societal shift in attitude is needed whereby phone use at the wheel becomes perceived as negatively as drink-driving.

The article attracted comments expressing the view that sat nav and infotainment systems can prove just as distracting to drivers, so we would again argue that common sense is key, the case involving the police officer mentioned at the outset highlighting the need for fleet managers and vehicle delivery handover personnel to recommend that a vehicle’s driver is familiar with and has programmed its controls before setting off.

While it would be fair to say that taxis, ride-sharing, ‘gig economy’ multi-drop couriers and other similar drivers aren’t always among the safest and most cautious demographic out there, stopping regularly in busy urban areas often at short notice outside properties, they nevertheless rely partly on voice communication in order to sustain their incomes in this time of economic uncertainty.

Company car fleet driver handbook drafting productionCompany car fleet policy/handbook drafting

It’s clearly impossible for any person or organisation to ensure that a driver demonstrates common sense at all times, especially when it comes to safe driving including awareness of the dangers of even Bluetooth mobile phone use behind the wheel. Convenience and temptation influence us all, at times.

As part of their duty of care obligations, though, businesses and organisations operating even a fleet as small as a handful of vehicles can and should take steps to ensure that they have documented their requirements and recommendations for personnel who drive on non-private journeys of any nature.

Vehicle Consulting regularly produces or advises our fleet clients on the drafting of comprehensive company car driver handbooks and policies that include subsections on mobile phone use as part of wider road safety sections. It is certainly advisable to take a thorough approach to driver policies rather than providing minimal, basic guidelines that can leave an organisation legally and morally exposed.

Let common sense prevail

Ultimately, it’s down to each driver to think first before making a phone call from behind the wheel. If it’s not absolutely necessary or could prove detailed or emotional, perhaps the conversation would be best saved for another time when not driving a vehicle. If weather conditions are poor or signal keeps cutting out, which can prove frustrating, it may again be wise to call back at a later time if feasible.

Consideration works both ways and it certainly wouldn’t be inappropriate for a driver to mention to anyone who calls them on the move that they’re driving, enabling the other person to hopefully show consideration, especially if rapidly-changing traffic, weather or other situations are clearly developing at the other end of the call, or if the driver is undertaking a manoeuvre such as parking.

As automotive technology continuously becomes more and more advanced, with 3D holographic systems the next big thing on the horizon, it’s unclear exactly how in-car communication will be shaped over the coming months and years. Artificial intelligence (AI) may even enable telephone functionality to dynamically disable itself in certain situations or in response to certain triggers. In the meantime, any road safety endeavours are of course welcome, but thoroughness when it comes to fleets plus a common sense attitude from general drivers should be sufficient rather than any unarguably punitive legal measures being taken.