Mobile phones

Should young drivers use mobile phones (hand-held or hands-free) while driving?

Hand-held mobile phone use while driving is banned in all states of Australia. Research has shown however, whether in hand-held mode or in hands-free mode, mobile phone use increases reaction times, speeding and attention lapses, as well as the risk of crashing. The risk of crashing increases four-fold, while the risk of driver death is between 4-9 times higher than when not using a phone.

Distracting a new driver is risky.  Many Graduated Driver Licensing strategies aim to reduce distractions.  There are a number of distractions found in cars, including radios, CD players and Global Positioning Systems, and passengers significantly add to these distractions. However, talking on a mobile phone has been shown to be even more distracting that talking to passengers.

Young drivers are more likely to undertake distractions and more likely to be severely injured when distracted by a mobile phone. A small study in the United States using a driving simulator found young drivers using a mobile while driving were involved in more collisions, drove through more stop signs, and crossed the centreline more often than experienced drivers using a mobile. An Australian study has shown that 9% of interviewed drivers who crashed used a mobile phone up to 10 minutes prior to the crash. Using a mobile phone in the previous 10 minutes was associated with a four-fold increase in risk of crashing.

Some Australian jurisdictions (Northern Territory, Queensland, Victoria) have disallowed all mobile phone use during the Learner and first stage Provisional licence periods. This includes phones in the hands-free mode or with loud speaker operating, sending or receiving SMS messages, and playing games.  As the introduction of these full mobile phone bans are relatively new, long term data are not yet available on their effectiveness in reducing phone use while driving, nor any subsequent impact on crashes.

Potential issues

In Australia, 9% of young drivers reported using a mobile phone in their most recent car journey. In this study, compared to older drivers, young drivers rated distracting activities such as mobile phone use as significantly less risky. Other reports find only 28% of young drivers view using a mobile while driving as hazardous, which suggests many young drivers might not comply with a ban on use if introduced. 

Effectiveness of restrictions depends on compliance, which can also depend on the level of enforcement of the restriction. One study in the United States found that the introduction of a mobile phone restriction for young drivers was not supported by targeted enforcement and there was little change in the short-term on the use of mobile phones while driving.  One report suggests, “there is evidence that cell [mobile] phone use among young novice drivers may be particularly problematic, although enforcement of a ban on such use would be challenging.”  Police report difficulties detecting mobile use by drivers when use can be hidden from view. 

Factbase recommendation

There is strong evidence that using a mobile phone (including hands-free) has a significantly detrimental effect on the driving performance and crash risk of young drivers.  Therefore, despite limited knowledge of their effectiveness, restrictions on all mobile use while driving are justified during the Learner and first Provisional licence stages.


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Mobile phones