Mobile menaces who dial and drive

The Sunday Telegraph

Sunday 13 January 2002
Mobile menaces who dial and drive

Text messaging puts lives at risk

LETHAL WEAPON

By BRONWYN ALLEN


TEXT messaging is the latest menace on our roads, with one in five motorists sending messages while behind the wheel.

Drivers are risking lives each time they send a message, which experts say is more dangerous than talking on a hand-held phone.
But text messaging is only part of a larger problem, with drivers flouting the law every day by using hand-held mobile phones a practice illegal in every state and territory.

Experts say the fines are pitiful and state governments have failed to raise awareness of the dangers.

"Using a hand-held mobile while driving is a lethal weapon," Pedestrian Council of Australia chairman Harold Scruby said yesterday.

"If you look down to dial a number or to receive a text message, you're taking your eyes off the road it's like driving blind.

"We have got to pay a lot more attention to this," he said.

"Not one state government has brought in legislation that anywhere near addresses the problem.

"The penalties are so unbelievably low that many people are happy to risk the fine."

Queensland University's Tim Horberry, who specialises in driver behaviour and road safety, said text messaging was particularly dangerous.

"Your eyes are off the road for a lot longer," he said.

"Research says taking your eyes off the road for more than a second or so can be dangerous and certainly with text messaging that is very much applicable."

Dr Horberry said services such as DriverSMS, which was launched by Australian company WAM Communications last year and lets subscribers send messages to other drivers using their number plates, encouraged text messaging while driving.

A recent survey of 400 Telstra customers showed almost one in five people sent text messages and one-third made or received calls on their mobile handsets while driving.

Police book an average of 10,000 people a year in NSW for phoning while driving.

In two weeks over Christmas, 600 motorists were fined in NSW alone.

Mr Scruby said that during holiday periods drivers lost six demerit points for not wearing seat belts, but could use a mobile and be fined only $118.

"It's a joke you could kill half a dozen people," he said. "We call on (NSW Transport Minister) Carl Scully to immediately bring in a $500 fine and a minimum of three demerit points."

As Telstra launches the first big national campaign on the dangers of using mobile phones while driving, the first Australian study on the link between mobile-phone use and serious car-crash injuries is being run by an Australian university, with funding from a US research group.

Researchers say the cognitive overload of talking on a phone reduces drivers' concentration and increases the likelihood of crashes.

Although hands-free phone kits are legal, experts say they can still cause a distraction.

"Holding a conversation on the telephone is considerably (more difficult) than just having a conversation in the car with somebody," Associate Professor Mark Stevenson, from the Injury Research Centre at the University of Western Australia, said.

Prof Stevenson, who this month begins researching the link between mobile-phone motoring and serious crash injuries, said drivers were aware of the risks.

"The general public is aware it impedes their driving performance, but they're probably not aware this could significantly contribute to serious injury and that's what this study is looking at."

The National Road Transport Commission will consider banning hands-free phone kits.

NSW Roads and Traffic Authority road safety manager John Brewer said that although people could die using mobile phones when driving, the offence was not equivalent to that of speeding or drink-driving.

"The number of people who die because they've been using a mobile phone is nowhere near (that of speeding), so our focus has to go on the major issues."

Mr Brewer said the "punishment should fit the offence" and the $118 fine with no demerit points was sufficient penalty.