Cellphone-obsessed drivers may have killed at least 17 people since 1997 - but other lethal distractions included talkative passengers, insect bites and fumbling with cigarettes.

Ministry of Transport figures issued to the Herald showed distractions from passengers caused almost twice as many fatal or injury smashes in 2003 as "telecommunications devices", which included radio-telephones and cellphones.

The figures did not indicate how many people were killed, and the ministry said its statisticians needed more time to break out that detail.

But the number of smashes blamed on communications equipment was 50, compared with three cellphone-related deaths in that year, as cited in separate statistics. Those statistics linked cellphones to 17 road deaths over seven years, a figure Transport Safety Minister Harry Duynhoven fears may be under-stated.

Talkative or otherwise distracting passengers were blamed for 99 crashes in 2003 and the next worst suspected cause - of 58 smashes - was drivers reaching for an object or trying to adjust something. Listening to or fumbling with radios, cassettes or CDs was linked to 53 crashes.