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Drivers are no safer with hands-free mobiles, study finds

Research shows using a hands-free device for a phone conversation while driving is no safer than holding the phone to one's ear.

Abu Dhabi // Using a hands-free device for a phone conversation while driving is no safer than holding the phone to one's ear, and both practices are dangerous, research shows. A driver's performance is impaired not because of holding the mobile phone but because of the unique cognitive demands of communicating via a mobile phone, said Dr Taha Amir, a professor of psychology at UAE University who conducted research into the implications of mobile phone use by drivers.

The driver's attention is significantly diverted from managing the vehicle by the need to focus on processing voice information that is being imperfectly conveyed over the limited bandwidth used in mobile telephony, Dr Amir argues. "That is why when one tries to spell a word correctly over the phone, he or she resorts to 'delta', 'beta', 'alpha' to indicate D, B and A," Dr Amir said. "This is not the case in face-to-face conversation.

A conversation with a passenger in the vehicle is much less distracting because the driver is receiving and easily decoding the full voice signal of the passenger, Dr Amir said. The research also found that using a mobile phone while driving increases a driver's reaction time, whereas listening to music on the radio does not. The belief that hands-free telephony is safer than holding the mobile phone to speak is based on the incorrect assumption that the distraction lies in minor factors such as holding the phone and dialling, the research shows.

The study, which covered 244 male and female participants, also showed that the more intense the conversation, the slower the driver's response to changes in the road situation. Dr Amir said he would like to see the effect of fourth-generation - or 4G - mobile phones, operating on wider bandwidths. "It will be interesting to find out whether engaging in a conversation using this new version of mobile phones while operating a vehicle will have the same negative effect on driving as the older versions," he said.

The study also found that: ? Talking for more than 50 minutes per month on a mobile phone while driving is associated with more than five-fold increase in accident risk. ? The risk of crashing increased four-fold when the driver was using a mobile phone. The increase in the accident risk was the same across ages and levels of driving experience. ? There was a slower response to signal light changes and a 15 per cent increase in non-response to stop lights in the presence of phone distraction. Older participants showed longer braking reaction time.

? Heart rate increased significantly during mobile phone conversations, an indication that mobile phone use increases the cognitive demands experienced by the driver. Abdullah Baniali, a 33-year-old from Jordan, said that using his mobile phone while driving has many times put him in danger of crashing. "I was about to cause an accident many times, and, without exaggeration, most of these times I was either using my mobile or trying to use it," he said. "When a driver uses his mobile while driving, he risks getting distracted by the conversation that is going on with the other person on the phone, whether hands-free or hand-held. Cars are killing machines and one should be fully alert when driving them."

Syrian national Nisreen Altaweel, 24, said that when she makes or takes calls while driving, she uses a hands-free device only and does not feel that she loses concentration. "The only trouble with that kind of facility is that I sometimes get confused by the wires that connect the phone to my ears. Generally, I find music more distracting and confusing than using my phone," Ms Altaweel said. Meeran Izadeen, 26, a taxi driver for Tawasul transport company, said he knows that holding a mobile phone while driving is dangerous but does not think that hands-free telephony is risky.

Huda al Kaabi, a senior communications officer for TransAD, the agency that oversees public transport in Abu Dhabi, said that using a mobile phone in any configuration while driving is dangerous but that the hands-free configuration is less dangerous. All taxi companies in Abu Dhabi prohibit their drivers from using hand-held mobile phones while driving, she said. TransAd would penalise any driver who is found to be in violation of the rule, she said. It imposes a fine of Dh500 (US$136) for the offence. A repeat offender is fined Dh1,000 and gets four points against his licence.

"Although it is preferable not to use a mobile phone while driving, drivers can use a hands-free mobile," Ms al Kaabi said. "We cannot make it illegal, because a mobile phone is necessary at times." The silver taxi network uses an information system that allows central control to transmit a customer's pickup information to a display in an individual taxi, freeing the driver from a potentially long and distracting phone conversation about details of the pickup.

"It is preferable for a driver to just focus on the road, to use the mobile as little as possible," Ms al Kaabi said. In the UAE, it is not illegal to use a hands-free mobile phone while driving. The penalty for using a hand-held phone while driving, however, is Dh200 and four black points on the licence. hhassan@thenational.ae

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