We Need To Talk About Handsfree: Officer understanding of the dangers of handsfree and handheld mobile phone use by drivers

Open University

Amount awarded


Uploaded to Knowledge Centre
31 January 2024

This project was funded by The Road Safety Trust to explore the issue of a potential displacement effect from handheld to handsfree phone use, police officer understanding of the dangers of handsfree phone use, and how this understanding impacted on their interactions with drivers observed using their mobile phone. The scope included measuring officer attitudes to phone use and their behaviour with offenders, both before and after receiving some education on the dangers of handsfree phone use.

Police officers from across England and Wales were recruited to participate in an online survey which measured their attitude and experiences relating to mobile phone use by drivers. Having completed the survey, officers were asked to complete an evidence-based interactive activity which highlights the dangers of handsfree phone use. They were then surveyed again, to enable a comparison of attitude measures pre- and post- exposure to education. In addition to the online survey, a further group of officers completed in-person interviews with a member of the research team. Interviews followed the same approach as the survey.

Analysis of both the quantitative survey data and the qualitative interview data allowed the team to identify key differences in attitude following exposure to education. Key themes in the data revealed that prior to education many officers considered that the main issue with phone use is the manual and visual distraction it imposes, and that handsfree phone use is a safe alternative to illegal phone use. Data also revealed that officers felt discretion is needed when considering prosecution due to feelings of fairness, the type of phone use witnessed and future potential police-public interactions.

Finally, data indicated that officers were in support of greater education for drivers regarding phone use (both at the roadside and elsewhere), but that officers themselves largely felt they did not need such further education themselves.

Quantitative data showed strong support from officers in enforcing mobile phone law with a view to improving road safety. However, many officers reported that they routinely offer roadside education to offenders, including a recommendation to use handsfree in future, based on the view that handsfree phone use is safer than handheld use.

After exposure to the interactive education, which provides personalised feedback on the user’s own multitasking ability, attitudes relating to the safety of handsfree phone use changed significantly. Officers changed their views on the seriousness/danger of handsfree phone use, and phone use while stationary in traffic. They further reported the intention to use their education in practice, including explaining the dangers of all phone use to offenders in future, recommending avoiding handsfree use and explaining specifically why handsfree phone use is dangerous. Some officers further suggested they would change their own phone use both at work and outside of work following experiencing the education, while others considered their own expertise and capability made such changes unnecessary.

In light of the effectiveness of education in changing officer attitudes and potential future practice, we provide a set of recommendations for wider application of education and specific guidance on officer-offender interactions. This includes a directive to not promote handsfree use as a safe alternative to illegal phone use, to target follow up education to address issues of consistency in applying the law (given views on discretion and context) and to provide police-specific education on the dangers of their own phone use.

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