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Well, its now illegal to make a call on your mobile phone while driving, unless that is, you make use of a hands-free kit.

And as the Sunday Star Times points out, there’ll be no getting away with schemes like fixing a phone to your head with an elastic band or wedging your mobile down your cleavage (see the SST’s most gratuitous breast shot of the year below).

sst hands-free

Anecdotal evidence suggests kiwis are well aware of the new law and are already thinking about their options for abiding by it. A family gathering today in Auckland saw various hands-free kits produced and shown off.

Suddenly everyone is talking about Bluetooth as though they’ve been using it for years and there have been stacks of stories about close shaves in cars because people were distracted while on the phone.

So at least public awareness of the issue of driver distraction has been raised – but once the law beds in and the surge of sales of hands-free kits fizzles out, will the roads be any safer?

Well, probably not if you believe the science. Much of the research that has been done suggests hands-free kits are almost as distracting to use while driving as a hand-held phone is. In fact, some scientists point out that the ease with which people can jabber away on the phone while driving using Bluetooth headsets and hands-free kits, means we likely do even more phoning from the car – increasing the risk of serious crashes.

Consider this research undertaken for the United Kingdom’s Department of Transport:

“Comparison was made between the conversations held over the carphone and with the front seat passenger. There was a clear difference on all conversation measures showing that performance was worse when the response was via the hands-free carphone. It is concluded that hands-free phone conversations impair driving performance more than these other common in-vehicle distractions.”

Back in 2007, FirstGroup, one of the UK’s largest transport company, banned its thousands of drivers from using hands-free kits based on the dangers pointed out in the research posted above. Stories like this one have led to calls in the UK for an outright ban on calls from mobiles while driving. Scientists in the US, where hand-held use of phones while driving is banned in several states are calling for more draconian measures – a total ban on mobile use in cars.

So coming late to the mobile phone ban party, is New Zealand ignoring the established science in belatedly following other countries down this path? Well yes, it would seem so. As David Farrar asked back in August, where’s the compelling evidence to suggest road crashes are reduced as a result of such partial bans? Where’s the cost benefit analysis for a ban on hand-held phone calls and for a full ban? I’m yet to see a comprehensive study comparing road crash statistics related to mobile phone use before and after a ban was introduced – anywhere. If anyone can point me in the direction of such research I’d be most grateful.

As such, we seem to be looking at another piece of policy making that sounds reasonable, but in fact isn’t made on the basis of evidence-based research. Such an approach would have pointed to the need for a total ban on mobile use in cars. That is, after all, what scientists are suggesting given that phone conversation in general in cars is a major distraction and therefore a major danger to motorists.