Father of maimed Times journalist says hands free devices should be banned

Case launched the Times cycling campaign

by Sarah Barth   February 24, 2013  

The Times Cities Fit For Cycling logo

The father of a Times journalist who was left in a coma after a lorry ran her over as she cycled to work has said that the use of hands-free devices while driving should be made illegal.

Mary Bowers was hit by lorry driver Petre Beiu, 40 in November 2011. Beiu was using a hands free mobile phone.

He was fined £2,700 for careless drving and banned from driving for eight months.

Peter Bowers told the BBC: "Although it is legal to use a hands-free set at the moment, the research shows that actually, in terms of distraction, there is very little difference between a hand-held mobile phone and a hands-free one."

Mary is unable to move or speak and will spend the rest of her life in a nursing home. She is not expected to live beyond 35.

Driving while using a handsfree mobile is not in itself illegal, unlike using a handheld phone, but if it results in driver distraction it can be used to support a charge of dangerous or careless driving and the prosecution had maintained that Beiu was “too engrossed in a telephone conversation” to be aware of the cyclist.

The prosecution also said that he had failed to check whether the road ahead of his lorry, where Ms Bowers had positioned herself at traffic lights, was clear, and witnesses described how the truck continued to move after Beiu jumped from the cab having failed to engage the handbrake.

 

14 user comments

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The case is tragic, but I think that attempting to ban handsfree devices at this stage is probably not going to be possible. How to enforce it? There are probably millions out tere already, and plenty of people still use handheld and don't get caught, so what chance with a handsfree device, when it's bluetooth connected and esentially invisible. We could say ban sales, then they would simply come in via e-sales anyway.
It's a difficult one, and much as I have sympathy for the cause, what would be the next step - ban radios in vehicles, or high powe sound systems? They are probably, in a similar way, responsible for as much lack of attention. I want no-one to get hurt at all, but the answer is more liley removal of licences and compulsory retraining followed by an enhanced test 9this can already be doen) combined with a firm line on sentencing by the judiciary. All after the evnt, sadly, but if this happened perhaps a steady effect would build up, as it did with seat belts, and is happening with smoking in public buildings.

Doc

posted by doc [167 posts]
24th February 2013 - 11:44

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what needs to change is the belief that driving is a right, a first step would be to enforce the 12points and you loose your licence rule, no hardship claims etc.

If you have been stupid enough to be caught 4 times, then should you be driving? Most offences are 3 pointers after all.

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posted by mrmo [855 posts]
24th February 2013 - 13:54

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How could you distinguish between hands free, tinkering with the radio or trying to reboot the satnav as you run over someone? All are 'electronic devices' that distract the driver from the road.

In a world where the police regularly catch HGV drivers watching DVDs on the road there is no way hands free are going to be banned. The only way to make it safer would be to give every motorist a car with seamless Bluetooth.

That said - judging by the muppets driving £40k cars with their phone held to their head better technology doesn't cancel out stupidity.

MercuryOne

Silly me. You're probably right....

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posted by MercuryOne [929 posts]
24th February 2013 - 23:31

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All sympathy for Mary's dad but proper enforcement of the handheld mobile ban would be a better place to start.
And we need a lot more education about things like speed limits. Public attitudes towards drink-driving have changed massively since Barbara Castle brought in the breathalyser and defined the legal blood alcohol limit for the first time (1967). We've gone from a 'one for the road' culture to 'designated driver' being the norm. It didn't happen overnight but it happened because the law was enforced and because the evidence that underpinned it was given a good airing.

posted by JonSP [45 posts]
25th February 2013 - 9:40

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MercuryOne wrote:
The only way to make it safer would be to give every motorist a car with seamless Bluetooth.

Er... having Bluetooth doesn't make using the phone safer. That's the whole point: handsfree is just as distracting to the part of the brain that deals with spatial processing as a normal phone.

And why would you need to differentiate between electronic devices if you run over someone? If you're distracted, you're distracted, and you should be accordingly culpable. This is about what should be banned, rather than what can cause a distraction: you can be distracted by sneezing or having a heart attack or suddenly remembering it's your anniversary and you forgot to buy some limp flowers when you filled up the tank and bought a reduced-price wind-up torch that you're now going to have to use as a present, but we can't ban those.

(Personally I say ban reprogramming satnavs while driving too. Pressing buttons on the radio can normally done without being a distraction provided you do it responsibly; which I appreciate not everyone does, but we have to appreciate that the driver needs to operate certain controls. I don't believe the same can be said of satnavs due to the more complex interaction, and the same certainly can't be said of phones of any type.)

Enforcement-wise I don't see a handfree ban is actually hugely more difficult to enforce than normal phones. Granted, it's a little easier to see someone on a normal phone, but you can still often spot lone drivers having conversations and you can still check people if they get pulled over for iffy driving. The police can surely still pull people over if they have any concerns, and then check their phone(s) for call records.

And really, it'd be adequately workable if there was a harsh enough punishment for using one. £60 is not a deterrent to anyone: you can barely buy a new car tyre or a tank of petrol for that. It's easily filed under "miscellaneous expenses".

Someone mentioned on STW a part of the US where being caught on the phone meant the police were empowered to destroy your phone and the cards in it. Get caught again and things get worse.

If people thought they were risking a ban or the destruction of their toys just by being *caught* using the phone then they'd at least think twice. Why wait until they happen to kill someone before pointing out that it's irresponsible.

All it needs is the political will to actually take it seriously and it can happen. No politician currently has the balls to do so, which means if it's to happen then some democratic momentum is required.

Which means it's probably time to seize what momentum there currently is.

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posted by Bez [336 posts]
25th February 2013 - 9:55

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Bez wrote:

Er... having Bluetooth doesn't make using the phone safer. That's the whole point: handsfree is just as distracting to the part of the brain that deals with spatial processing as a normal phone.

The same could be said for talking with other people in the car couldn't it? Should we ban all talking to the driver in cars? It's as easy to spot as drivers talking on handsfree.

I think it'd be more appropriate to educate drivers to be more considerate on the roads and more aware of potential hazards (something I guess they have tried to do with the introduction of the hazard perception in the theory test now). If there is a potential hazard in the road, drivers should be able to spot it, stop talking (whether on the phone or to a passenger) or whatever else and ensure they manoeuvre round it safely. This should be obvious but clearly people still can't do it.

Si

posted by sim1515 [126 posts]
25th February 2013 - 14:42

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sim1515 wrote:
The same could be said for talking with other people in the car couldn't it?

No, that's a crucial point: it couldn't. Research shows that talking on the phone occupies spatial processing in the brain -- and it's this aspect which is a) problematic and b) independent of phone type. As I understand it, research finds that speaking to someone who is present doesn't incur the same level of distraction.

sim1515 wrote:
If there is a potential hazard in the road, drivers should be able to spot it, stop talking (whether on the phone or to a passenger) or whatever else and ensure they manoeuvre round it safely. This should be obvious but clearly people still can't do it.

But the problem is that by occupying spatial processing parts of the brain, using a phone inhibits people's ability to see those potential hazards, therefore they're less able to assess the increased risk and adapt their behaviour.

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posted by Bez [336 posts]
25th February 2013 - 17:15

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Bez wrote:
sim1515 wrote:
The same could be said for talking with other people in the car couldn't it?

No, that's a crucial point: it couldn't. Research shows that talking on the phone occupies spatial processing in the brain -- and it's this aspect which is a) problematic and b) independent of phone type. As I understand it, research finds that speaking to someone who is present doesn't incur the same level of distraction.


Which research finds that speaking to someone who is present doesn't incur the same level of distraction? As I understand it, the results have been mixed, some saying the it's more distracting but some also saying that there's no real difference so at the moment there's no actual consensus as nothing has been proven conclusively either way so I don't think it could be considered a "crucial point".

Bez wrote:

sim1515 wrote:
If there is a potential hazard in the road, drivers should be able to spot it, stop talking (whether on the phone or to a passenger) or whatever else and ensure they manoeuvre round it safely. This should be obvious but clearly people still can't do it.

But the problem is that by occupying spatial processing parts of the brain, using a phone inhibits people's ability to see those potential hazards, therefore they're less able to assess the increased risk and adapt their behaviour.

This is my point too though, if talking to passengers has the same effect (which some studies have shown) people either have to learn how to concentrate or shouldn't be doing either (or anything else that distracts them but is legal for that matter).

Si

posted by sim1515 [126 posts]
25th February 2013 - 20:41

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I think the site will block my post if I drop links in, but, on the TRL site, study TRL664: "It is concluded that hands-free phone conversations impair driving performance more than these other common in-vehicle distractions."

And from the University of Utah; Drews, Pasupathi and Strayer: "drivers in the cell-phone condition were four times more likely to fail in finishing the task than drivers in the passenger condition. No change in performance was observed in the
passenger conversation condition compared to the control
condition (driving only)"

But as your rightly say, these are not the only studies and evidence is mixed.

I think the point is not necessarily one of drawing perfect parallels between various distractions, though. It's one of balancing risk with utility and practicality and reasonableness. Given that we've banned non-handsfree phones on the grounds that (a) they add significant risk and (b) it's perfectly reasonable to conduct a car journey without making a phone call, it seems odd not to ban hands-free phones on the basis that they are really exactly the same: they add the same risk and provide the same utility.

Forcing people in the same car to sit in silence is, most would argue, less reasonable than expecting them not to use the phone.

We can't ban everything, and some people will always be inattentive at times, but I think it still makes perfect sense to ban hands-free phones.

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posted by Bez [336 posts]
26th February 2013 - 10:00

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Coming back to my earlier point, plenty of use of non-hands free goes on, along with ludicrously loud sound syetems, and the chances of getting caught are minimal, unless the incident (NOT accident) happens.
Calling for "bans" is all well and good, where do we stop, and at what point is the law in disrepute because it is simply unenforcable and as a consequence mostly ignored.
Taking the "ban" approach to it's ultimate conclusion, banning passengers to avoid conversation, ban radios, ban sat-navs, or simply just ban motor vehicles?
No-one wants to see horrible incidents happen, but it appears to be one of the costs of mobility, and as a society which has a culture of commuting distances from home to work, lack of local shopping but big supermarkets out of town, use of a vehicle gets to a point of necessity.
I recall a comment once heard "To every problem there is a simple and straightforward solution. Which is usually wrong". Nothing's simple then!

Doc

posted by doc [167 posts]
26th February 2013 - 11:17

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doc wrote:
... the chances of getting caught are minimal, unless the incident (NOT accident) happens ... at what point is the law in disrepute because it is simply unenforcable and as a consequence mostly ignored.

The problem is that we currently don't take things like this seriously: we give people a £60 fine and that's it.

If we actually had a punitive and noticeable measure then enforceability and ignorance would be addressed. Having your phone destroyed or your car clamped if you're caught using a phone, for instance. Or being automatically culpable with a minimum ban and retest if involved in an accident whilst on the phone (or, indeed, using a satnav or the radio or doing your make-up or whatever - though the phone has the advantage of being easily provable via call records). Do that and, hey, you can still use these things, but you do so knowing that if you lose control or fail to observe other road users whilst doing so you will be *properly* reamed for it. At the moment you are no more punished for using a handsfree phone in the lead-up to a collision than you are if not - and arguably that's fair (both drivers clearly being inattentive to a similar degree) but only in a retrospective way that fails to consider the factors of causation: if you want to deter people from *choosing* activities which are known to increase the risk of an accident then you need a mechanism to make them consider the consequences before making that choice, and that would achieve that. The fact that you can't easily prevent a collision that occurs without a phone being involved is in no way an argument to say we shouldn't strive to prevent collisions where a phone *is* involved.

I don't see the practicalities of the law being an issue *provided* someone in power has the balls to say that these are genuine issues that need to be addressed, instead of just thinking a £60 fine will have the slightest effect.

As for the semi-rhetorical "where does it end?" question, well, whilst it's a superficially reasonable question, IMO it just makes no sense. A line has to be drawn somewhere; it ends wherever we say it ends: at one end we can't reasonably ban people's brains from thinking about other things whilst driving, and at the other end we shouldn't be allowing people to drive whilst watching a film or playing Angry Birds or learning to play the banjo. Currently the line is drawn above mobile phones but below hands-free phones, which is a *very* strange place to draw it given that on the scales of both risk and value they are both in virtually the exact same place. The *only* reason to ban one and not the other is that people are making assumptions about what is a distraction, rather than actually heeding real evidence. And that is no way to construct a law that's specifically designed to balance criteria that are clearly quantified - at the very least in relative terms - by evidence.

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posted by Bez [336 posts]
26th February 2013 - 13:30

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Bez wrote:
I think the site will block my post if I drop links in, but, on the TRL site, study TRL664: "It is concluded that hands-free phone conversations impair driving performance more than these other common in-vehicle distractions."

And from the University of Utah; Drews, Pasupathi and Strayer: "drivers in the cell-phone condition were four times more likely to fail in finishing the task than drivers in the passenger condition. No change in performance was observed in the
passenger conversation condition compared to the control
condition (driving only)"

But as your rightly say, these are not the only studies and evidence is mixed.

I think the point is not necessarily one of drawing perfect parallels between various distractions, though. It's one of balancing risk with utility and practicality and reasonableness. Given that we've banned non-handsfree phones on the grounds that (a) they add significant risk and (b) it's perfectly reasonable to conduct a car journey without making a phone call, it seems odd not to ban hands-free phones on the basis that they are really exactly the same: they add the same risk and provide the same utility.

Forcing people in the same car to sit in silence is, most would argue, less reasonable than expecting them not to use the phone.

We can't ban everything, and some people will always be inattentive at times, but I think it still makes perfect sense to ban hands-free phones.

Yes, I've seen both of those, the first one only compared talking to a front seat passenger which is not always the case (taxi drivers or parents) and both were criticised for using simulated conditions.

And you are right, there are also a few studies which conclude that there's no considerable difference between talking on the handsfree and to a passenger (University of Michigan, American TRB and University of Illinois that I've seen), given that, it's not me drawing parallels, it is that they seem to be the same and therefore we should treat them the same right?

I don't see why you think it's unreasonable to force people to sit without talking if it carries the same risk as something else you wish to ban?

Bez wrote:

The problem is that we currently don't take things like this seriously: we give people a £60 fine and that's it.

If we actually had a punitive and noticeable measure then enforceability and ignorance would be addressed. Having your phone destroyed or your car clamped if you're caught using a phone, for instance. Or being automatically culpable with a minimum ban and retest if involved in an accident whilst on the phone (or, indeed, using a satnav or the radio or doing your make-up or whatever - though the phone has the advantage of being easily provable via call records). Do that and, hey, you can still use these things, but you do so knowing that if you lose control or fail to observe other road users whilst doing so you will be *properly* reamed for it. At the moment you are no more punished for using a handsfree phone in the lead-up to a collision than you are if not - and arguably that's fair (both drivers clearly being inattentive to a similar degree) but only in a retrospective way that fails to consider the factors of causation: if you want to deter people from *choosing* activities which are known to increase the risk of an accident then you need a mechanism to make them consider the consequences before making that choice, and that would achieve that. The fact that you can't easily prevent a collision that occurs without a phone being involved is in no way an argument to say we shouldn't strive to prevent collisions where a phone *is* involved.

I don't see the practicalities of the law being an issue *provided* someone in power has the balls to say that these are genuine issues that need to be addressed, instead of just thinking a £60 fine will have the slightest effect.

As for the semi-rhetorical "where does it end?" question, well, whilst it's a superficially reasonable question, IMO it just makes no sense. A line has to be drawn somewhere; it ends wherever we say it ends: at one end we can't reasonably ban people's brains from thinking about other things whilst driving, and at the other end we shouldn't be allowing people to drive whilst watching a film or playing Angry Birds or learning to play the banjo. Currently the line is drawn above mobile phones but below hands-free phones, which is a *very* strange place to draw it given that on the scales of both risk and value they are both in virtually the exact same place. The *only* reason to ban one and not the other is that people are making assumptions about what is a distraction, rather than actually heeding real evidence. And that is no way to construct a law that's specifically designed to balance criteria that are clearly quantified - at the very least in relative terms - by evidence.

I do agree that the punishment for getting caught could be greater although it's currently £60 AND 3 points on your license so repeat offenders will end up losing their license if they carry on. It's also worth mentioning that Police can still prosecute for use of handsfree (as well as sat-navs etc) if they think you are distracted and not in control of the vehicle.

This is however the same as the minimum penalty for getting caught speeding (which you could argue should also have the punishment increased). I did a little digging and found that some figures by the Department for Transport for 2009 (I haven't found any more recent data) and there were 128,185 accidents in total but only 325 of those had the contributory factor of "Driver using mobile phone" which is around 0.25%. This compares with 2.3% for distraction in vehicle, 14% for accidents which had either exceeding the speed limit or driving too fast for conditions and 38% for failing to look properly.

This gets me to "where does it end" and where I draw the line. The current line of no phones, use handsfree seems enforceable and is perceived as sensible and takes the risk away from the reduced use of hands. If you want to ban handfree and it carries the same risk as talking to other passengers, surely you can't draw a line between them just like you say you can't draw one between handsfree or no handsfree given the studies mentioned above.

It seems more appropriate to concentrate efforts to educate everyone so they are better drivers, 69% of accidents that year were put down to the headings of "Driver error or reaction" as opposed to "Impairment or distraction" which only got 12%. Another heading which got a lot was Behaviour or inexperience which got 23%, harsher penalties for careless, reckless or in a hurry (15 of that 23%) would be a better place to start in my opinion if we were wanting legislation for tougher penalties.

I know that statistics can be used to prove almost anything but the same could be said for the evidence used to compare handsfree use to talking to passengers, I am just using them to put things into a bit of context.

Si

posted by sim1515 [126 posts]
27th February 2013 - 15:06

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Yeah, fair points all round. (Though I don't think points are really worth the paper they're written on: they expire and there's always the 'exceptional hardship' plea so in reality I don't think they have any effect in the vast majority of cases.)

To be fair I'm slightly winging it (as may be apparent) on a devil's advocate position, though my personal and non-scientific experience is that hands-free involves much more distraction than in-car conversations and has far more in common with conventional phone use than with in-car conversation. But I have to concede that the studies that show it are not perfect, and the evidence overall inconclusive. Clearly the issue of hands-free will be heavily dependent on the degree of similarity to those other two similar activities, so with inconclusive evidence that's currently a little subjective.

I agree that banning things does slightly miss the point in that, in a way, it tackles symptoms (or at least secondary causes) rather than primary causes - viz another recent study showing that phone use was symptomatic of drivers who were poor across the board, rather than being anomalous behaviour of otherwise good drivers.

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posted by Bez [336 posts]
4th March 2013 - 13:28

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Bez wrote:
Yeah, fair points all round. (Though I don't think points are really worth the paper they're written on: they expire and there's always the 'exceptional hardship' plea so in reality I don't think they have any effect in the vast majority of cases.)

I think points do have some effect although they do expire and some people do get leniency, I would say that (in my experience) when people approach 12 points (or 6 in the first two years) they tend to be more cautious and the hardship plea is by exception, not the norm so I tend to disagree on your view that they have no effect in the vast majority of cases but it's all subjective so neither of us can quantify the actual effect they have.

Bez wrote:
To be fair I'm slightly winging it (as may be apparent) on a devil's advocate position, though my personal and non-scientific experience is that hands-free involves much more distraction than in-car conversations and has far more in common with conventional phone use than with in-car conversation. But I have to concede that the studies that show it are not perfect, and the evidence overall inconclusive. Clearly the issue of hands-free will be heavily dependent on the degree of similarity to those other two similar activities, so with inconclusive evidence that's currently a little subjective.

I would probably say in my experience, it's the other way round, when I was a lot younger I used to drive around with my mates in the car listening to loud music (not a very proud time looking back!), I would say that I was certainly more distracted back then than I am now when I drive home using handsfree to talk to my wife and can see there being lots of other factors affecting both sides. As you rightly say though, there's no conclusive proof either way and so anecdotal evidence is pretty irrelevant.

Bez wrote:
I agree that banning things does slightly miss the point in that, in a way, it tackles symptoms (or at least secondary causes) rather than primary causes - viz another recent study showing that phone use was symptomatic of drivers who were poor across the board, rather than being anomalous behaviour of otherwise good drivers.

And this is really the point (which maybe we now agree on?), getting drivers to be more aware, more considerate and generally drive better should be more of a focus than banning small (and relatively insignificant) actions. Extrapolating slightly from that study, if we ban phone use, the bad drivers will still be bad and will probably end up getting distracted by something else which hasn't yet been banned. If we educate drivers (and other road users including cyclists) to a better standard and to be much more considerate (we can all dream right?), it may prevent them getting in that situation in the first place, and solve quite a few of the other issues talked about in this forum such as bad overtaking of cyclists, jumping through red lights and other inconsiderate behavior (such as hogging the middle and right hand lanes on the motorway which is another pet peeve of mine!!).

Si

posted by sim1515 [126 posts]
6th March 2013 - 14:05

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