Driving is a highly unpredictable and risky activity, so it requires full concentration at all times. Drivers who divide their attention, because they’re on the phone or distracted by something else, are significantly increasing their risk of causing a devastating crash.
How dangerous is distraction?
A study of in-vehicle video footage estimated that 22% of crashes could be caused, at least in part, by driver distraction. It also showed that drivers who perform a secondary task at the wheel are two to three times more likely to crash . Other studies have found that more complex secondary tasks, like talking on a mobile phone or texting, increase crash risk even more.
Many drivers allow themselves to be distracted because they believe they are in control, and do not believe distraction poses a significant risk . However, research shows drivers are not able to correctly estimate how distracted they are  and 98% are not able to divide their attention without a significant deterioration in driving performance .
Unfortunately, driving while distracted is a common risk many drivers take. Brake and Direct Line research has found many drivers put themselves and others in danger by talking on a phone, texting or using social media , eating, drinking, or grooming .
Take action: Make the Brake Pledge to never take or make calls or texts when driving, turn off phones or put them out of sight and on silent, and stay focused on the road.
What makes using a mobile phone at the wheel so dangerous?
In the United States, deaths caused by distracted driving have been increasing and researchers put this down to increases in drivers using mobile phones and other smart technology . Drivers speaking on phones are four times more likely to be in a crash that causes injury, whether on a hands-free or hand-held phone . Their crash risk remains higher than normal for up to 10 minutes after the call has ended .Drivers using phones have slower reaction times and difficulty controlling speed and lane position . They also brake more sharply in response to hazards, increasing the risk of rear-end crashes .
Some drivers mistakenly believe that talking on a hands-free kit at the wheel is safe, because hands-free use is still legal in the UK and many other countries . Research shows hands-free calls cause almost the same level of risk as hand-held , as the call itself is the main distraction, not holding the phone. Brain scanning has confirmed that speaking on a hands-free phone makes you less alert and less visually attentive .
Some people dispute the risks of hands-free phone use, claiming that talking on a phone is no different to talking to a passenger. However, research has found that while drivers on phones have much longer reaction times and poor speed control, drivers with chatty passengers perform nearly as safely as drivers with silent passengers . This is partly because conversations with passengers come to a natural pause when approaching hazards, as the passenger can see when the driver needs to concentrate .
Laws that only ban hand-held phones are therefore less effective in reducing crashes, because many drivers simply switch to hands-free phones, so are still distracted . A Brake and Direct Line surveyfound that following the UK’s introduction of a ban on using hand-held phones at the wheel in 2003, between 2006 and 2014, the proportion of UK drivers using hand-held mobile phones dropped from 36% to 13%, but those using hands-free rose from 22% to 32% .
The effect of talking on a phone while driving has been shown to be worse than drinking certain amounts of alcohol. Driver reaction times are 30% slower while using a hands-free phone than driving with a blood alcohol level of 80mg alcohol per 100ml blood (the current UK limit), and nearly 50% slower than driving under normal conditions .
Reading and writing messages while driving – such as texting, emailing or social networking – is even more distracting than talking on a phone, as it takes your mind, hands and eyes off the road. Texting drivers have 35% slower reaction times and poor lane control . One large-scale study found texting drivers were 23 times more likely to crash than a driver paying full attention .
Reaching for a mobile phone can be an irresistible temptation for some, despite knowledge of the risks. In the UK, experts have warned of increasing levels of smartphone addiction by users who are unable to go without checking their phone for short periods or through the night . Even the sound of a mobile phone ringing has been found to cause distraction and increase crash risk . That’s why Brake advises drivers to turn their phones off or put them on silent and put them out of reach, ideally in the boot, to remove the temptation.