Driving and hands-free telephony... is it safe?

Driving and hands-free telephony... is it safe?

By Gaby Grammeno on 30 April 2018 Many workers, sales staff particularly, use hands-free mobile phone kits to take and make calls while undertaking work-related driving. But is it safe to drive while using hands-free telephony ?

Q: We have a number of staff who need to drive company vehicles during the day in the course of their duties. We have hands-free phones in our cars, but we’ve been told that it’s the mental distraction that causes accidents and that hands-free phones are not enough to protect the safety of our staff. Should we require our staff, as a matter of company policy, to turn off their phones while driving?

A: An increase in deaths on US roads in recent years, after decades of declining rates, has been attributed to the rise in the use of phones while driving. In Australia, research shows road accidents are more likely if a person is distracted while driving. Phones are notorious for causing the short lapse in concentration that can have devastating consequences. 

Using a hands-free phone while driving is legal in all Australian states and territories (except for learner and provisional P1 and P2 drivers, who are banned from using phones in any way), but debates continue as to how safe it is.

Receiving a brief call when road conditions are not challenging may be perfectly safe, especially if people keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel. But a difficult or longer phone conversion in busy or complex traffic situations could interrupt a driver’s focus if the driver is, for example, making a right turn, looking for a gap in traffic or changing lanes. 

And despite hands-free devices, many drivers automatically look at their phone if they hear a text message come through or if someone calls. The New South Wales Centre for Road Safety states that taking your eyes off the road for longer than two seconds doubles the risk of a crash.

However, phones are not the only in-car distraction that can impair safe driving. Other passengers, adjusting the sound system, checking screen displays or entering text into a GPS system can be equally distracting and dangerous, not to mention illness, injuries, fatigue, large spiders or distress resulting from a recent argument with a family member or colleague.

Distractions can also come from outside the vehicle, for example, an animal runs out onto the road, another driver makes a sudden unexpected move close to the car, or the driver is searching for a particular street name in heavy rain.
Clearly, distractions are arrayed on a spectrum. The potential risk varies in line with the influence of a wide range of factors. Distractions often occur in combinations, for example, hearing the ‘ping’ of a text received while adjusting the air-conditioning and trying to calm upset children in the back seat.

In other words, a phone call, even one taken on a hands-free system, can be an added distraction, on top of several others.

Individual factors are also involved. For example, evidence suggests that young drivers are more likely to be distracted by what their passengers are doing or saying than older drivers with more experience. It has also been claimed that young men are the worst offenders, when it comes to using their phones while driving.

Employers’ obligations

A large number of work-related injuries arise from driving. Two thirds of work-related fatalities involved a vehicle, according to Safe Work Australia’s Work-related Traumatic Injury Fatalities, Australia 2016, and thousands of people are injured every year while driving on work-related business.

Employers are obliged to eliminate or minimise foreseeable risks to workers, and the distraction of dealing with phone calls while driving is undoubtedly a potential risk factor, though the actual risk in individual situations may vary from significant in some situations, to vanishingly small in others. 

If it is reasonably practicable, the safest option is to require staff to turn off their phones while driving.

However, it may not be reasonably practicable to require all employees in all jobs to turn off their phones while driving. But in occupations where constant availability is not necessary, a risk analysis may suggest that good policy would require workers – at the very least – to refrain from initiating calls while driving, and to pull over at the earliest opportunity to take calls received, if the call is not likely to be brief.



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