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A ban on hands-free devices | PH Footnote

Legislation could kill the car hands-free device, but leave complicated infotainment systems unaffected

By Dafydd Wood / Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A report by the House of Commons’ Transport Select Committee has recommended banning the use of all mobile phones whilst driving, including hands-free devices. Chair of the committee, Labour MP Lilian Greenwood, said that the current law creates “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”.

The finding comes despite a recent High Court ruling which muddies the waters around what exactly constitutes use of a phone while driving. Builder Ramsey Barreto was found guilty of the offence after being spotted filming while passing the scene of a crash in North London. His conviction was later overturned, however, with Lady Justice Thirwall ruling that “the legislation does not prohibit all use of a mobile phone held while driving”. She said: “It prohibits driving while using a mobile phone or other device for calls and other interactive communication (and holding it at some stage during that process).”

Clearly a change in the law is needed, then, in order to reflect the ever-evolving way in which people use their smart devices - even the term ‘mobile phone’ seems an outdated one in 2019. But the MPs’ views raise an even bigger question than whether fiddling with a phone while driving is dangerous. If being distracted by the 5.5-inch screen of a smartphone is worthy of up to six points and a £200 fine, then what about the 17-inch display of a Tesla Model X?

Some manufacturers have attempted to persuade drivers to lock their phones away whilst behind the wheel with many, including Audi, placing the wireless charging pad within the armrest to ensure devices stay out of reach. The German marque’s latest interior refresh, however, has seen the climate controls shift to a secondary touch screen located directly beneath the infotainment display. Attempting to glance down at it to adjust the AC requires taking your eyes off the road for far longer than swiping to answer a call on a dash-mounted mobile.

Then there’s the case of cars like the VW Up. I thoroughly enjoyed my long-term GTI’s use of my smartphone in lieu of a built-in infotainment screen, its dash-top location even made it less distracting to use than the majority of factory-fitted systems. Under the Transport Committee’s recommendations, could I have found myself on the wrong side of the law for using my phone while driving, though?

Distracted driving is undoubtedly an issue, but modern motoring requires a far more nuanced approach to legislating against it than the simple vilification of mobile phones. With in-car tech becoming more and more prevalent, but fully-autonomous cars still realistically several years off, manufacturers need to act responsibly too. Designing a cabin that can’t be used without having to focus on a knee-height screen doesn’t seem to be a safety-first decision.

And when it comes to mobile phones themselves, well, prosecutions for breaking existing laws have declined by more than two-thirds since 2011, despite incidents involving drivers talking and texting having increased over the same period. Perhaps enforcing the laws we already have would be a good place to start, before rushing to implement any ill-conceived new ones.

Let us know of your thoughts on the matter below.

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