Road safety experts have criticized new rules on using mobile phones while driving, saying it is a ‘missed opportunity’.

Last month the Government introduced legislation to ban the use of all hand-held devices while driving a vehicle, in order to close a legal loophole that had existed since 2003. The previous version of the legislation was from a time before smartphones, and refers only to ‘interactive telecommunication’, which from the technology of the time only consisted of calls and texts. The law had been cited in a case to quash the conviction of a driver who had filmed a road traffic accident on his mobile phone.

However, experts from the fleet industry and scientific bodies have suggested that by permitting the use of communication via hands-free devices and infotainment systems, the regulations still leave significant risk for drivers.

Alison Moriarty, fleet risk director at Drive Consulting, said: “While I welcome any changes that reduce distractions to drivers caused by mobile phone use, the proposal does not go far enough. It is proven that the physical effects of holding a device are not as much an impairment to concentration as the mental distraction of holding a conversation and this is the same when using hands-free.”

“In fact, you are four times more likely to be involved in a collision, resulting in injury, if you are on a call including using hands-free options.”

Moriarty’s comments were backed by Shaun Helman, chief scientist for behavourial and data sciences at the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), who felt that this was a ‘missed opportunity’ by retaining the focus on hand-hand devices. “There are four types of distraction: manual, visual, auditory and cognitive. What this law still does is focus on just one of those.”

A study by TRL using a simulator found that drivers’ reactions are slower when holding a hands-free conversation than under the influence of alcohol. “There’s an acceptable level of distraction, but I suspect it probably should be below hands-free phone conversations”, according to Helman. He said that the design of infotainment systems did not help. “There’s a clamouring for the driver’s attention … badly designed interfaces will jar and cause attentional refocusing.”

Under the new law, drivers caught using a handheld device while driving will face a £200 fixed penalty notice and six points on their licence. ‘Hands-free’ devices will still be allowed, such as sat-navs or smartphones, if they are secured in a cradle. If police judge that drivers are not in proper control of their vehicle while using these devices, they can still be charged with careless driving.