Handsfree 'makes no difference' when driving

Using a handsfree kit makes little difference to your driving - it's the topic of the conversation that can prove fatal

Using a handsfree kit to answer or make a call whilst driving makes no difference to your safety, a new study has shown. Instead, it's what you talk about that is paramount to how safe your driving is.

It has long been believed that if you use a handsfree set when driving and talking on a mobile phone, your safety as a driver increases. Steering with two hands, instead of holding your phone in one hand while chatting, is considered safer. It was this reasoning that brought about the ban on using mobiles in vehicles in the UK in December 2003. Penalties for using a mobile when driving were increased in February this year. Handsfree kits, however, can still be used.

But a Swedish study has concluded that it's the actual conversation taking place that's the most important factor - not whether you're using a handsfree kit or not.

"I thought using a handsfree kit would make driving easier but the results showing that this isn't the case are remarkable. Rather, it is the complexity of the call that makes a difference from a safety perspective," said Christopher Patten, who works for Vägverket, the Swedish Road Administration.

Patten is an expert on the importance of the human factor in road traffic. He has recently submitted his thesis on the subject to the Institution for Psychology at the Stockholm University.

Mental challenges

In his study, Patten has mapped out how different mental challenges affect drivers. He concludes that drivers are as affected by talking to a fellow passenger as they are by talking to someone over the phone, regardless of whether a handsfree kit is used.

"If the topic of the conversation is the same, the risk is equal," Patten said.

Having an important conversation with your boss is riskier than receiving a phone call from your partner asking you to pick up a pint of milk on the way home, Patten said. He added that using a handsfree set whilst being told off by your boss would only make a "very marginal difference" safety-wise.

Other risks whilst driving include listening to a "captivating" song on the car stereo, and even your own thoughts.

Use your phone 'with caution'

Patten does not advise banning mobile phone calls whilst driving altogether. But he stressed that a mobile phone should be used "with caution" in complex traffic situations, such as driving in urban areas. Experience is also paramount as to how drivers handle distractions on the road, Patten's study showed.

"Your experience as a driver plays a huge difference. Experienced drivers can handle what is going on around them better, as they don't have to think about their driving as much as less experienced drivers," Patten said.

But Patten added that handsfree sets are still beneficial. "It is very practical to use a handsfree kit, primarily because you never have to look for your phone when it starts ringing."