Sydney Morning Herald - Wednesday 13 July 2005

Dialling death on the gadgets that drive us to distraction

Tough laws are needed to steer motorists away from the deadly diversion of new technology, says Harold Scruby.

Technology has been the great silver bullet over the past 10 years to significantly reduce death and injuries on our roads: safer cars, red-light cameras, radar and speed cameras, and even the ubiquitous mobile phone, which enables faster responses from high-tech emergency and medical services.

But the saving of life and limb through technology is under threat, ironically from technology.

A Monash University study revealed that using a legal hands-free (as opposed to an illegal hand-held) mobile phone while driving was the equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08. An NRMA study found that text messaging while driving distracted drivers for 12 of every 30 seconds they spent writing the message. And the latest research, from Sydney University's George Institute for International Health, found that a person using a mobile phone when driving was four times more likely to have a crash that will land them in hospital. Importantly, it found that using a hands-free phone was no safer.

But there is much worse to come. The emergence of new technology, and its convergence with existing technology, will confound our legislators and enforcement agencies.

The mobile phone is quickly becoming a mobile TV, DVD player, GPS navigator, video-phone, emailer, internet navigator, newspaper, and probably babysitter and dishwasher.

Screens visible to the driver and fitted to vehicles are required to switch off when the vehicle is in motion. But this design rule does not apply to new mobile TV phones, equipped with web browsers. So if the evidence suggests that simply talking on a phone or texting is as dangerous as mid-range drink-driving, imagine how dangerous it's going to be on our roads when we all embrace this next generation of telephony.

And most new vehicles are being fitted with Bluetooth wireless technology, meaning there will be no need for a fixed cradle to support a hands-free phone. Drivers will just fiddle around, making and receiving calls at will.

The most difficult problem will be enforcement. If a police officer suspects a person is texting or watching a screen - even if they cannot see if that's the case - they can pull the driver over. But police are not permitted to search the person or the vehicle for evidence. The driver can simply put the device under the seat or in their pocket.

Furthermore, unless someone has been killed or seriously injured, privacy laws prevent police officers obtaining any information about the driver's incoming or outgoing calls.

These are just some of the reasons we should be concerned about the illegal use of hand-held mobile phones. Police just do not have the resources to catch even 1 per cent of drivers who are breaking the law. That is also the reason governments throughout the world have been reluctant to ban the use of hands-free mobile phones. Not because it's not dangerous - it's just almost impossible to enforce.

There are two laws under the Australian road rules that relate to this issue.

First: "The driver of a vehicle must not use a hand-held mobile phone while the vehicle is moving, or is stationary but not parked."

Second: "A driver must not drive a motor vehicle that has a television receiver or visual display unit in or on the vehicle operating while the vehicle is moving, or is stationary but not parked, if any part of the image on the screen: is visible to the driver from the normal driving position, or is likely to distract another driver."

As the new technologies merge, which law will the police use? Was the driver using a phone or watching a screen?

New laws allowing police to search for these devices must be in place. And legislation banning the use of hand-held phones and watching screens must be unified and simplified. Under NSW law, police can confiscate a radar-detecting device on the spot. So why not apply the same law to the illegal use of mobile phones and screens? The nuisance factor alone will deter most illegal users.

The deterrent effect is the only real solution. Clearly, the penalty of $225 plus three demerit points is not working. If using these devices is as lethal as mid-range drink-driving, it follows that the penalties should be similar, as no one can argue that the behaviour is not deliberate. Instant loss of licence (or at least 10 demerit points, which is the law in Victoria for under-0.07 drink-driving) and a $1000 fine would see a big change in this lethal behaviour and fewer deaths and injuries on our roads.

Legislators must act now before the road toll goes back to the days before random breath-testing.

Harold Scruby is the chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia Limited.

© This work is copyright and is reproduced under licence from John Fairfax Holdings Limited


Sydney Morning Herald Tuesday 12 July 2005

Hands-free, but not crash-free

By Julie Robotham Medical Editor

Hands-free mobile phones offer no protection against car accidents, according to world-first Australian research that plotted the call records of drivers involved in crashes.

Drivers were four times more likely to crash while using a phone - whether they were holding it or not.

The findings challenge the rationale for laws that permit motorists to make calls while driving only with hands-free devices. And they confirm a growing body of evidence that shows the mental distraction of phone conversations affects driving skills at least as much as physically handling the phone.

The study's leader, Mark Stevenson, said: "The road authorities need to reconsider the basis of legislation there is overwhelming evidence it's the distraction factor."

The NSW Roads and Traffic Authority said hand-held phones were identified as a possible contributor to 10 crashes in 2004 in which there were injuries, and a further 20 in which cars had to be towed away. But, said RTA spokeswoman Karen Smith, this was likely to be an underestimate.

Professor Stevenson, director of the injury prevention and trauma care division at the University of Sydney's George Institute for International Health, said there would be practical difficulties in policing any extension to the law. It was more important, he said, to change attitudes to using the phone while driving.

The mobile phone firm Vodafone encourages workers to limit their phone calls while driving and warns them: "A conversation on a hands-free mobile phone may be more distracting than a conversation with a passenger in a vehicle with you. This is because your passenger will be aware of road conditions but a person who is talking with you on your hands-free phone will not."

Professor Stevenson's study, conducted in Perth emergency departments, examined the phone records of 456 injured drivers and found 40 of them - 9 per cent - had used their mobile within 10 minutes before the crash. Only 3 per cent of the same drivers had been on the phone at comparable times of day during the previous week. Statistical analysis showed the risk of a crash was four times higher around the time of the phone call.

Writing in the journal BMJ, Professor Stevenson said wireless and voice-activated phones might remove some distracting elements from calls but not the risk. "If this technology actually increases mobile phone use in cars, it could contribute to even more crashes."

© This work is copyright and is reproduced under licence from John Fairfax Holdings Limited