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With increasing numbers of motorists using smartphones in the car for things other than phone calls, the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) has been performed some research to discover how such gadgets can affect driving ability.

While previous research has examined the affect of voice calls and text messaging on driving ability, the IAM’s research is much more up-to-date, since it covers mobile web access — something that is now a standard feature on every smartphone and many ordinary mobiles.

According to the research (titled “Don’t poke me I’m driving” — the IAM is evidently five years behind with Facebook trends), driver distraction resulting from mobile phone use was a contributory factor in 1,690 accidents between 2006 and 2010, including 110 fatalities.

Accidents that do not lead to injury of any party are not recorded in police statistics, so the IAM believes the actual accident figure to be far higher.

The problem is also that it is difficult to ascertain when a driver has been involved in an accident as a result of mobile phone use.

As Peter Rodger, Chief Examiner at the IAM, explains: “Mobile phone users often slow down to compensate for their unsafe driving behaviour, which may mean their actions cause less severe crashes and incidents, leading to a lower level of reporting.”

So, in order to assess the impact of mobile phone use on driving ability, the IAM used a driving simulator that involved using Facebook on an internet-enabled smartphone — a service selected for its enormous popularity.

The test involved driving on a simulated motorway and two-lane carriageway. Participants were required to react to audio and visual stimuli by pressing the clutch pedal as quickly as possible, while remaining at what they thought was a safe distance behind the car in front, which varied its speed throughout the test.

Participants were also required to check periodically update their Facebook status and check for messages. This sounds like rather extreme behaviour for motorway driving, but having seen drivers glancing at a book propped against the steering wheel while speeding along an empty middle lane, it’s perhaps not too unbelievable to happen in reality.

The IAM then measured the amount of time spent looking at the road, reaction times to certain stimuli, lane position and speed. And, as you might imagine, the results were hardly surprising.

When using Facebook, the IAM found that participants spend up to 60% of the time not looking at the road ahead, this is compared to around 10% when driving normally.

Reaction times also increased enormously, with participants taking 37% longer to react to external stimuli and they often missed some events completely.

To put the data into context, the IAM also published figures from other driving studies and this shows that social networking on a smartphone while driving is second only to making a hand-held mobile phone call when it comes to the adverse affect on reaction times.

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In short, using Facebook on a smartphone while driving is extremely dangerous and while that may sound like an obvious conclusion, suspicion isn’t quite the same thing as statistically significant research data when it comes to informing future legislation.

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However, handheld mobile phone use while driving was banned in 2003 and drivers continue to flout the law. Government plans are afoot to increase fines for drivers who continue to spurn hands-free phones, but detection and enforcement is still the bigger issue.

You can read the full IAM report on its web site.