Bluetooth - the debate

  • We look at the pros and cons of Bluetooth
  • Is a hands-free call less distracting that eating or chatting to passengers?
  • Are other in-car influences more dangerous?

We all know that using a mobile phone while you’re behind the wheel is against the law, but the debate surrounding the use of Bluetooth is an interesting one, with compelling arguements for and against the technology.

Bluetooth might well allow you to access a variety of your phone’s functions ‘hands-free’, but until now research has suggested that it’s not the physicality of touching the phone that’s the problem, it’s the call itself.

Drive a company car and you may discover your employer has a policy in place that bans the use of 'hands-free' kits, while others may welcome the technology. Either way, it is important that you follow your company's directives on this matter, regardless of personal stance.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of using a Bluetooth telephone connection in your car and why do some companies ban it?

Case against standardising Bluetooth

Most agree that using a handheld phone while driving is dangerous. It’s too simplistic an argument to suggest that simply holding the phone is the problem - after all, tasks such as changing gear and adjusting the radio require the driver to take their hands off the wheel too.

Where the danger originates is operating the phone: you have to concentrate on it much longer than the cursory glance you might take at your radio before adjusting that.

Caroline Rhuebottom from the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) suggests that while the organisation is strictly against the use of hand-held phones while driving, “research has shown that it is not actually the physical act of holding the phone which is the primary disruption – in fact it is the conversation you have with the person at the other end which is the real distraction.”

This view is reinforced by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in the USA, which suggests that hands-free kits still pose an “extensive risk” and that such mental distractions slow down drivers’ reactions.

Companies have a duty of care towards their drivers to ensure they stay as safe as possible on the road as well as protecting themselves against corporate manslaughter charges if an accident was to occur. Many businesses argue that by banning the use of Bluetooth while driving the temptation to become distracted by a phone call is removed.

In his May 2013 speech announcing a toughening up of financial penalties against drivers using their mobile phones, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin revealed that in the previous year there had been more than 150,000 driving convictions related to mobile phone use.

With the Department for Transport (DfT) confirming that the government has no current plans to introduce legislation requiring the mandatory fitment of Bluetooth equipment in new cars, it would seem the case against mobile use is strong. Or is it?

Case for standardising Bluetooth

We live in a world where being perpetually contactable is an inevitable part of our daily lives. Many spend hours behind the wheel and the nature of our jobs requires us to be able to respond quickly to phone calls.

Those against the notion of using Bluetooth for telephone calls will suggest that before answering the phone, drivers should find somewhere safe to park, switch off the engine and then return the call. There may be worthiness behind the suggestion but the reality is it creates inefficiencies for people who have to travel considerable distances for work.

Certainly not all telephone conversation scenarios are suitable for Bluetooth-equipped cars – if the caller’s message is so complex you really need to take notes, then clearly this isn’t something you should attempt until you are safely parked.

In the main, most conversations aren’t like that and herein lies the obvious counter-argument: is conversing with someone on a Bluetooth enabled phone any more distracting than talking to people in the car with you? Many would suggest it’s less distracting than driving with screaming, irate kids on the back seat.

This view is reinforced by new research by Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics. Their joint research paper suggests there is little-to-no correlation between numbers of calls made by drivers and numbers of car accidents in the same period.

Car companies are obsessed with safety, with high Euro NCAP ratings helping make cars more attractive. Those same companies don’t omit Bluetooth connectivity from their equipment lists on safety grounds. In fact, the opposite is true with many seeking greater integration between cars and smartphones.

What is driver distraction?

Whenever we drive cars there are always distractions, from adjusting dashboard controls to passengers in the car with us. Using a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone while driving, is undoubtedly a distraction, but where does it really rank in the list of in-car disturbances?

Existing research into factors which distract drivers is too narrowly focused. Broader investigations analysing various in-car disturbances, including the use of Bluetooth hands-free kits, is something many drivers would champion.

As the law currently stands, if you need to make telephone calls while you’re driving you must avoid breaking the law and risking a £100 fine and three penalty points, Bluetooth is a solution. Just be conscious that if you’re driving a company car, your employer may have already decided against its use for you.

Let us know what you think and vote below on what you think is the biggest cause of driver distraction.