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November 25, 2009

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Driving for work- Talking points

There has been a great deal of discussion of the necessity for a total ban on the use of mobile telephones in cars by staff on business — much of it with little reference to original research into the subject. Percy Smith examines some of the information available to discover if there really is a safety case for a total ban.

Contrary to popular belief not all hand-held communication equipment is prohibited for use in a vehicle while travelling, as such equipment includes driver-operated devices also. The use of two-way radio communicators by, for example, drivers of police, emergency, taxi, military, and security vehicles is perfectly legal — as is the use of CB radio communication by lorry drivers.

The legislation relating to the use of hand-held equipment1 primarily concerns aspects of vehicle control; obviously, if one hand is being used to hold a communication device to the ear or mouth, then the driver has only one hand on the steering wheel, thereby reducing the degree of control of the vehicle.

This is an obvious deduction, and common sense would dictate that driving one-handed is less safe. So how come it is quite legal for a driver to be using one hand to operate a two-way communication device, or a transmit/receive microphone, in the same manner? Is it simply because it would be too difficult to ban the emergency services, etc. from using their established communication equipment, and CB users just happen to benefit from this? It seems the safety impact of using such equipment is not considered dangerous enough for these groups to be included within the Regulations.

Despite the logical ban on hand-held telephones in vehicles, brought about by the amendment to the Regulations,1 calls persist for us to go further than the law and apply a total ban on the use of hands-free telephones in cars. It is my view that this emotive and vocal minority is in danger of swaying the opinion of senior managers into imposing a ban on hands-free equipment by employees that is unnecessary, unhelpful to business operations, and virtually impossible to enforce. (Note that by ’employees’ this article is referring only to people transiting between workplaces in cars, not those whose primary task is driving specialist vehicles, carrying goods or undertaking deliveries, where the vehicle forms part of their work equipment.)

Driver definitions

If a ban were to be implemented on the use by staff of hands-free communication equipment, who would it affect? That depends on the ‘type’ of driver the employee is, so let us first look at the definitions:

  • Company car — a company car is provided for an individual from a fleet that belongs to his or her employer. The individual does not have to make any monetary contribution towards the upkeep of the vehicle — servicing, insurance, tax, etc. are all fully funded. The vehicle never belongs to the individual and remains the property of the company.
  • Car allowance — In this context, car allowance is a monetary allowance given by the company to an individual because the use of a vehicle is an essential part of their job specification. The vehicle is, and remains, the property of the individual, who must fund all associated costs (but is reimbursed for fuel).
  • Casual mileage allowance — this is given to an employee who may occasionally be required to travel somewhere on company business but who is not in receipt of a company car, or a car allowance. They may be asked to make their own way, using their own vehicle. They are then reimbursed for their fuel costs.

Anyone in receipt of a company car, or car allowance, could, if the company so wished, be restricted in their use of hands-free mobile equipment within their vehicles while on company business. This would have to be explicit in the company policy, which is binding on employees, and failure to comply with which could lead to disciplinary action and, ultimately, dismissal.

Such a policy would be straightforward to implement but very difficult to enforce. Any vehicle to which a car ‘allowance’ applies, as opposed to a fleet vehicle, does not belong to the company but remains the property of the individual, who may decide to purchase, and fit, their own hands-free mobile phone. The decision to do so is theirs and, indeed, it remains entirely within the law,1 which says:

“A mobile telephone or other device is to be treated as hand-held if it is, or must be, held at some point during the course of making or receiving a call, or performing any other interactive communication function”; And:

“‘Interactive communication function’ includes the following:
    €ᄁ    Sending or receiving oral messages;
    €ᄁ    Sending or receiving facsimile documents;
    €ᄁ    Sending or receiving still or moving images; and
    €ᄁ    Providing access to the Internet.”

As long as these issues are avoided, then a person may fit and use whatever devices they wish and, in such cases, it will be beyond the company remit to tell people:

  • what equipment they should buy for fitment in their own vehicle;
  • when they should use such equipment;
  • that the use of such personally purchased equipment is prohibited; or
  • how it should be installed, or where and how it should be mounted.

The company may, of course, offer guidance, and it is perfectly reasonable for it to check that an individual has valid insurance, a valid licence, MOT, etc. for any vehicle they use on company business, as these are legal requirements.

However, it is not for the company to dictate to an individual what they may, or may not, install in their own vehicle, as long as it remains within the law. They may only do so if the vehicle is a company car and belongs to a company-owned and maintained fleet. Therefore, in the case of car allowance, as opposed to company-car provision, it is doubtful that a change in policy would be effective.

Other driver distractions

Various studies and research papers have examined the subject of driving while simultaneously undertaking a telephone conversation, with some concluding that holding a remote conversation while driving reduces driver awareness and attention. Others, however, have admitted that such distraction may have myriad other causes. Research undertaken by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation,2 for example, concluded: “After reviewing the studies conducted by other agencies and institutions on cell-phone use, it is clear that there are many variables involved and alternative approaches for alleviating the problem.”

Such ‘variables’ include:

  • talking to passengers;
  • eating food or consuming liquids while on the move;
  • operating in-car entertainment, or other vehicle equipment;
  • smoking while driving;
  • driving while under the influence of prescription drugs;
  • driving while ill;
  • fatigue;
  • map reading;
  • satellite navigation use; and
  • boredom (on long motorway journeys).

Taking the first of these, recent research has shown that drivers travelling with two, or more, passengers are more than twice as likely to crash than those travelling alone.3 While this is lower than the purported four-fold increase in the likelihood of crashing if using a mobile phone, the research goes on to emphasise that  “although the risk associated with carrying passengers is lower than that associated with mobile-phone use, it is likely to have a higher contribution to accidents because of the higher incidence of drivers taking passengers as opposed to using a mobile phone when driving”.

Bear in mind also that the risk while travelling with passengers remains for the entire journey, whatever its length, whereas any increased risk caused by telephone use only lasts as long as the call, and a short time afterwards.

Passenger distraction is particularly acute among young adult drivers, and in situations where the passenger is not well known to a driver, such as on a car-share journey, where there would be a psychological imperative not to sit in silence. This does offer the intriguing possibility that the use of a hands-free mobile phone in a vehicle is actually less dangerous than taking part in a car-share programme!

A Norwegian survey4 showed that of 14 reasons for “split concentration” while driving, conversations with passengers were the reason for the highest number of accidents, at 7.8 per cent. The use of mobile phones, at 0.3 per cent, shared 13th place with “insects in the car”. This same study also concluded that the use of both radios and CD players caused more accidents than the use of a mobile phone.

In addition, a number of studies has compared conversations with a passenger with those undertaken using a mobile phone. Some, such as those by the University of Michigan5 and Ege University in Turkey,6 came to the conclusion that although holding a conversation is riskier than not holding one, this remains almost the same for in-person (passenger) or remote (mobile phone) conversations. Of course, other studies disagree.

No phone at fault

Statistical analysis of the accident and near-miss reporting system within my own organisation has revealed the following:

  • There have been no road traffic accidents reported where the prime initiator of the accident causal pathway was attributed to hands-free mobile telephone use. This is within a group of approximately 1100 people, who have been issued with hands-free mobiles phones and/or Blackberry devices that double as mobile phones. This constitutes some 50 per cent of the workforce. (Note that hands-free telephones are currently issued by the company; it is the proposal to ban their use entirely that is under discussion.)
  • There have been no occasions where the use of a hands-free mobile phone has been reported as a secondary contributor to the causal sequence of a road traffic accident.
  • There have been no near misses attributable to hands-free mobile phone use in a vehicle.

So, in my organisation, there is no empirical evidence that the use of hands-free mobile phones in vehicles has been a causal factor in any recorded accident, or near miss since the reporting system became operational, some five years ago.

As the increased likelihood of a crash while using a hands-free mobile phone has a temporal, durational element, it would seem sensible to reduce such use to a minimum. My company’s current risk assessment and telephone-usage guidance includes the following dynamic risk assessment advice:

  • The use of hand-held phones while driving is expressly prohibited.

And, for hands-free phones:

  • Phones must not be hand-held and must, at all times when in use, be located in a suitable, well-positioned cradle;
  • Users must make incoming callers aware that they are driving and seek to minimise call duration and complexity;
  • Calls should be brief and restricted to business use;
  • Outgoing calls must be kept to a minimum;
  • On a long journey, take regular breaks in a safe location — this is the ideal time to pick up messages and make calls;
  • Where there is a compelling business requirement for mobile phones to be used by drivers (whether in a company or privately-owned vehicle) hands-free kits will be supplied and fitted.


Various studies have shown that using a mobile phone, hand-held or hands-free, can increase the likelihood of an accident four-fold. Many others, however, have demonstrated that there are myriad other distractions that have a far worse effect on drivers’ concentration — particularly conversations with passengers, which have been shown to double the likelihood of an accident, and the risk from which is no different to that from a conversation held remotely via a mobile phone.

Given that the increased risk factor for a hands-free mobile-phone call only lasts as long as the call, plus a short time afterwards, but the increased risk factor from conversations with passengers lasts for as long as the journey takes, I think it is fair to suggest that such conversations actually pose a greater risk than the use of a hands-free mobile phone for very short calls.

It should also be noted that many of the studies referred to in this article have not been repeated using voice-activated (e.g. Bluetooth) systems. Indeed, some admit: “This could be because the so-called hands-free phones in common use today aren’t really hands-free. We didn’t have sufficient data to compare the different types of hands-free phones, such as those that are fully voice-activated.”7

So, it is possible that such voice-activated devices may offer an even lower risk factor. The complexity of ancillary equipment within motor vehicles continues to increase, requiring varying degrees of driver attention. Indeed, some of the equipment now fitted to vehicles as standard, such as cup-holders, positively encourages behaviour that may distract the driver.

Satellite navigation systems are of particular interest as, although they are not supposed to be accessed while the vehicle is in motion, in reality they often are. I feel the level of distraction introduced by such systems create even greater risks than mobile phones but further research is needed to determine if this is the case.


Because the use of mobile phones within moving vehicles has been shown by some research to increase risk it is an easy reaction to say “lets ban them all”, thus eliminating the risk. However, a total ban on the use of hands-free mobile telephones in vehicles used on company business would, in my view, be draconian, ineffective, impossible to enforce and have little, or no effect on driver safety, or accident reduction. It would also be divisive, costly and, in the case of all non-company car drivers, open to legal challenge.

Technology continues to improve our communication ability and availability, and allows us to keep track of employee whereabouts in emergency situations. Yes, we must understand and address the risks, but to deny the use of such helpful equipment in this technological world is an approach that would only gain the approval of General Ned Ludd and his Army of Redressers!

1    Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) (Amendment) (No.4) Regulations 2003, which amended The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986
2    ‘Cell phone use in motor vehicle crashes, May-Oct 2002’, Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Safety, 2003
3    ‘Passengers, not just mobile phones, contribute to road accidents’, Science Daily, 23 May, 2007 — on research by The George Institute, Dr McEvoy S, Prof. Stevenson M, et al
4    Saberg, F (2001): ‘Accident risk of car drivers during mobile telephone use’, International Journal of Vehicle Design, Vol.26, No.1, pp57-69
5    As reported by the University of Michigan News Service, 13 February, 2006 —
6    Amado S and Ulupinar P: ‘The effects of conversation on attention and peripheral detection: Is talking with a passenger and talking on the cell-phone different?’ Ege University, Psychology Department, Izmir, Turkey
7    Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (2005): Status Report, Vol.40, No.6

Percy Smith is health and safety coordinator for the Generation and Renewables division of RWE npower.

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