Driver devices, phones face safety crackdown

The Age

Sunday 16 November 2003

By Paul Heinrichs


Road safety authorities will review penalties for using hand-held mobile phones in cars, and will also examine whether new DVD players and satellite navigation systems in cars could cause dangerous driver distraction.


Victorian Transport Minister Peter Batchelor has warned of a possible crackdown by state and federal governments on driver distractions.


The moves are a response to growing community concerns that technology for drivers is running ahead of legislative controls designed to reduce accidents.


But Australia's leading car manufacturers have told The Sunday Age that governments are focusing too much on speeding and not enough on improved driver training.


"No car company condones speeding or unsafe driving, but my concern is that there is an over-emphasis on speed and perhaps neglect of some of the other equally or more significant issues," said Ford Australia president Geoff Polites.


Mr Batchelor will review the Victorian penalties, under which using a mobile phone results in an on-the-spot fine of $135 ($200 if you go to court) and, since last December, the loss of three demerit points. The review - to take place early next year - is likely to lead to a broader driver education campaign stressing the dangers of using phones or text-messaging while driving.


According to overseas research, these activities increase the risk of being involved in a crash by four times - equivalent to having a blood-alcohol reading significantly over the legal limit of .05.


Yet a recent Telstra survey showed one in six people admitted they had used their mobile phones to send text messages while driving.


The road-user groups Bicycle Victoria and the RACV called on the State Government to act on the mobile phone issue last week in the wake of a Geelong case in which a woman walked free after having killed a cyclist while text-messaging on her phone. In that case, the Crown prosecution authorities took part in a plea-change arrangement to utter a form of words that allowed the judge to give the woman a two-year suspended sentence - and prevented any appeal on its leniency.


The woman pleaded guilty to a charge of culpable driving, for which the average sentence has increased since 1998 from 35 months' imprisonment to 54 months. Suspended sentences for this offence are very rare.


Although only a few voices have been raised against the sentence in this particular case, road-user groups would like to make it a turning point for the community.


"What the sentence reveals is that the justice system has not been correctly briefed on the gravity of the behaviour," said the general manager of Bicycle Victoria, Harry Barber.


He proposed that the law should be refocused on "incapacity to drive" - not just through alcohol or drugs, but through a range of negligent behaviours such as text messaging - and the penalties and prevention programs that currently differ should be brought into alignment.


Mr Batchelor said: "It's an interesting argument, and one that will be increasingly put in the public domain."


It was only 12 months ago that Victoria added demerit points to the fine for using a hand-held mobile phone, and Mr Batchelor said it was normal to review how that was working after 12 months' operation.


As a survey by The Sunday Age showed, the law is widely ignored by drivers, who gamble on not being caught, but Mr Batchelor said he did not favour community reporting, as it would suffer from abuse and evidentiary problems.


Mr Batchelor said he was concerned that unintended consequences can result from technology affecting road safety issues running ahead of legislative control.


"It wasn't that long ago that we didn't have mobile phones, and the take-up rate and use of them is beyond the expectations of the telecommunications industry - they didn't think so many people would have them so quickly," he said. "So the understanding of the law of the impact of these changes, in the generic sense of technology, but also in the specific sense of mobile phones and text messaging, is way behind - playing catch-up.


"I mean, there wouldn't be too many politicians who would know how to send a text message, let alone know whether they should make a law about it."


He said that at the meeting of all state transport ministers on November 7, concern had been raised about driver distraction.


Victoria is home to one of the world's leading researchers on issues of driver distraction, Michael Regan of Monash University Accident Research Centre.


In a recent paper, Dr Regan said the main concern in using navigation systems while driving was the task of entering destination information, which is done in various ways - some vocal and others manual, such as selecting from scrolling lists of suburbs and street names or typing in the relevant information.