Johannesburg - According to a report by the International Transport Forum (ITF), as many as 25% of crashes on South African roads are caused by the use of cell phones while driving.

Hands-free kits and Bluetooth devices let drivers keep both hands on the wheel when talking on mobile phones – but do they really make driving while using a cell phone safer?

Kirstie Haslam, partner at DSC Attorneys, says that studies suggest the answer is no. “Having a phone conversation, even if you don’t have to hold the phone, is a distraction,” she says.

Hands-free calls are safer because both hands are on the wheel - but they are just as distracting, causing what scientists call ‘attention disengagement’.

“Much like daydreaming, it takes your mental focus away from driving. If you’re concentrating on a conversation, you’re not paying enough attention to the road,” says Haslam.

It backs up previous research that speaking on a cell phone is almost as dangerous as driving under the influence. Drivers who speak on mobiles often veer into the wrong lane, fail to check their rear mirror and speedometer, and remember less of their journey. Motorists using a phone are also four times more likely to crash.

She points out that some studies have even found that drivers talking on phones using hands-free devices were likely to drive faster than those using phones they had to hold. “This may be because the hands-free systems gave the drivers a false sense of security,” she adds.

Comparing cell phone and passenger conversations

Haslam says studies indicate that it’s much less dangerous for a driver to converse with a passenger than to talk on a cell phone while driving. “Although the conversation itself can be distracting, having an extra pair of eyes to see potential threats mitigates the danger.”

Also, Haslam says that your passengers know to stop talking when it’s clear you need to concentrate on the road. “In fact, a good percentage of the conversation between drivers and their passengers tends to be about road conditions and what other drivers are doing.

“In contrast, a person on the other end of a phone is oblivious to your surroundings. He or she can’t help identify potential driving dangers and won’t stop talking because you’re encountering difficult road conditions.”

 Why is it so dangerous?

Because cars travel at high speeds, Haslam says that you typically have very little time to react in the event of an accident. “Collisions happen in split seconds. This makes any form of distraction while driving very dangerous.”

According to data collected by the Discovery Insure Driver Challenge app, using a cell phone involves an average of 52 seconds of distracted driving. If you’re driving at a speed of just 60km/h, Haslam says that this is equivalent to driving 'blind' for one full kilometre.

“It’s estimated that roughly 90% of all vehicle crashes are caused by driver error, and a large percentage of these accidents are due to driver distraction,” she adds.

Minimising the risk

Talking on a cell phone while driving without a hands-free kit is illegal in South Africa. Many newer cars feature integrated Bluetooth connectivity, meaning you can connect your cell phone and make calls on the go. This may make cell phone use while driving legal, but it doesn’t make it safe.

If you need to make a call, Haslam advises to do so before you start driving. “And, if you must answer a call you receive when you’re already on the road, carefully pull over in a safe spot before doing so.

“There simply is no safe way to use a phone while you’re driving”.

Drive360