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UK Transport Committee questions safety of hands-free

Ericsson connected car

A UK Department of Transport Committee has released a report demanding the use of mobile phones, including hands-free features, be banned while driving.

Quoting research which suggests traffic collisions where mobile phones contributed resulted in 773 casualties, including 43 deaths, in 2017, the Committee is calling for tighter rules and regulations for mobile devices while driving. Hands-free features have also been targeted, with the Committee claiming the safety benefits are misleading.

“Despite the real risk of catastrophic consequences for themselves, their passengers and other road users, far too many drivers continue to break the law by using hand-held mobile phones,” said Chair of the Transport Select Committee, Lilian Greenwood.

“There is also a misleading impression that hands-free use is safe. The reality is that any use of a phone distracts from a driver’s ability to pay full attention and the Government should consider extending the ban to reflect this.”

Although it is quite clearly more dangerous to use a mobile device while driving, a bit of common sense needs to be applied here. If a driver is using the full hands-free capabilities of the phone, in the sense said driver only interacts with the device using the voice interface, exceptions should be written into any rule changes.

Looking at the hands-free features of the phone, is this anymore distracting that listening to the radio or having a conversation with the person in the passenger seat? Perhaps an enforceable screen-lock should be introduced to ensure the driver is not tempted to make use of other features while in the car, but banning voice interactions with the device should surely mean the driver should be banned from having a conversation with passengers?

This is perhaps what the misleading nature of hands-free is; users are not making use of the entire suite of features. If the user has to tap the screen to accept a call or scroll through contacts to make a phone call, if is clearly distracting. However, there is no reason the user would have to take their eyes off the road if all hands-free features are being used.

Interestingly enough, your correspondent did a quite test to see how easy it was to do to operate hands-free.

Davies: OK Google, send a text to Dad

Google Assistant: For that, you’ll need to unlock your phone

Davies: OK Google, search for directions to Cardiff Castle

Google Assistant: The best way to Cardiff Castle is…

This is where the issue might lie. If unlocking the phone is a requirement to make use of hands-free features, it pretty much undermines the benefits. It’s not every feature which requires the device to be unlocked, however these are communication devices. This is quite an oversight, and while there will be changes to the settings which can be made, it is not the promise which has been relayed to the consumer through advertising.

The Committee is absolutely correct that rules have to be tightened up. Two weeks ago, a White Van Man managed to argue against a traffic violation as he was reportedly using the video function on the phone while driving. To break the rules today, data has to be sent or received from the phone while driving. This is a grey area which of course should be corrected.

However, an outright ban on smartphone usage, which is being called for here, is an incorrect approach to future-proofing rules and regulations for the digital economy.

Speaking to BBC Radio Two, Greenwood has suggested the best approach would be to put a mobile phone in the boot prior to beginning driving. However, this would be incredibly difficult for those who rely on a smartphone for work. Take delivery drivers, for example, who need to find out about the next job, or taxi drivers who need accurate navigation applications. What about paramedics or police who have to be engaged with a radio constantly?

A spokesperson from the RAC has countered Greenwood’s point, suggesting police should focus on enforcing current laws instead of creating new ones. Research suggests enforcement of laws focused on using mobile devices has dropped by two-thirds since 2017. The RAC spokesperson suggests these new laws are going too far.

In reality both are correct. Greenwood is right in suggesting current laws are not stringent enough, they were largely written in 2003 when a mobile device was a completely different product, though banning devices completely is unreasonable. There are considerable benefits to using a smartphone while driving, assuming the user is making proper use of hands-free features and engaged with the road.

What you have to consider here, and we suspect Greenwood has not, is the ‘law of unintended consequences’. Mobile nurses won’t be able to do their jobs properly and surely if talking to someone on the phone using hands-free is dangerous, singing along to the radio or talking to a passenger is exactly the same? The law has to be consistent. It is still a distraction, but no-one is considering banning having children in the backseat.

If people use the hands-free features correctly, there is no difference from the distractions people face today. Perhaps the focus should be on tackling misleading claims, introducing screen locks while driving, forcing drivers to make use of built-in Bluetooth features and improving the application of the voice interface.

Regulation for the sake of regulation is always a dangerous game to play, but it is often the outcome when technology-illiterate individuals, with little understanding or consideration of the future, are in-charge of making the rules.


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