Mobile-phone technology is moving fast but how is the motor industry keeping up? We look at Apple’s new voice-controlled SIRI service and ask: is it safe for drivers?
Apple is often at the forefront of new technology and one of its latest smartphone creations is advanced voice-recognition software called SIRI.
Users simply ask their iPhones to carry out tasks such as sending a text, making a call, checking the weather and even answering trivial questions.
This is nothing new for hands-free technology, which has existed in cars in Bluetooth form for many years.
But the prevalence of Apple means millions of drivers now have access to this software and are using it behind the wheel.
The law and hands-free sets
It has been illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving since December 2003. Breaking this law can lead to a £60 fine and three penalty points.
Although it’s not illegal to use hands-free phones they can be a distraction and you'll face the same penalties as using a phone if the police believe you’re not in proper control of your vehicle.
If your case goes to court you may also face disqualification on top of a maximum fine of £1,000.
We spoke to Peter Rodger, chief examiner for the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), to ask whether SIRI, or other new mobile-phone technology, poses any road-safety risks.
“If you had an accident and the investigation revealed that you were using a device at the time you would be liable for careless driving but more likely dangerous driving,” he said.
“You would be conducting some activity other than driving therefore you are distracted from the task, which is driving.”
New technology risk
Despite some road safety groups campaigning against mobile phone use, Rodger says the IAM is not against all technology.
“The problem is not the technology, it’s how we use it. Whether it’s calls or answering emails while you’re driving: you can’t do both.”
According to an RAC survey, over the last 12 months, 27 per cent of drivers admitted to using a mobile without a hands-free kit and 27 per cent of drivers text while driving.
Worryingly, 24 per cent of 17 to24-year-olds and 12 per cent of 25 to 44-year-olds accessed email, Facebook or other social networking sites behind the wheel.
“When people start checking emails and other things then you start having to question what people are doing: are they driving or are they in the office?”
Rodger explains that hands-free technology like SIRI is not the problem, it’s the driver’s attitude.
“If taking hands away from the steering wheel were the problem then manual gearboxes would have been made illegal and we’d all be driving automatics. It’s what you’re doing with your brain that’s the problem,” he says.
“There’s a distraction involved with mobile phones because they take away the visual element. You always see people walking about with their phone, they tend not to sit and have a conversation and there must be a reason for that, because they’re distracted.”
In 2006 a study carried out by psychology students at the University of Utah found that motorists who talk on handheld or hands-free phones are as impaired as drunk drivers.
In California, the home of Apple, the San Jose Police Department has warned drivers that using SIRI while driving is illegal because, although you’re allowed to talk to the phone hands-free, touching the device to activate it is breaking the law.
Despite new technology sparking road safety fears Rodger says the current law in the UK is sufficient: “The law already exists and actually is very good. But all sorts of laws need better enforcement. Most of us abide by the law but we need to see action being taken against those that don’t.
“It doesn’t matter what they invent people will find a way to use it to suit them so it’s very difficult to keep up with.”