Car cellphone ban 'no brainer' - Joyce

By Mathew Dearnaley

Texting while driving is a 'no brainer', Steven Joyce said today.

The Transport Minister wants action this year to ban drivers from using hand-held cellphones.

Mr Joyce said yesterday that he would seek rule changes to ban voice calls and texting, subject to recommendations from officials and Cabinet approval.

He is waiting for a Ministry of Transport report on public consultation about the use of cellphones while driving.

He understood it showed a "broad level of consensus" on banning the use of hand-held cellphones.

However, Mr Joyce said he was still awaiting advice on penalties.

"There are already laws, of course, about driver distraction and people shouldn't be driving their cars and texting and being distracted by cellphones at the same time," he said.

"That doesn't change but I think we've got to go ahead and get this rule in place."

It was likely hands-free cellphone use would be exempted.

Transport officials are busy preparing recommendations for public submissions on road safety actions expected to be taken next year to reduce dangers such as drink-driving and excessive speed.

But Mr Joyce said he was keen for the cellphone issue to be given high priority.

The public consultation followed a proposal by the previous Labour-led Government to fine drivers $50 and impose 25 demerit points for using hand-held phones.

Even cellphone giants Vodafone and Telecom supported bans early last year, after a young drink-driver was convicted of killing an elderly Ashburton couple while texting.

Road safety researchers say using a cellphone while driving increases the risk of crashing by up to nine times.

Using cellphones while driving makes motorists as impaired as drunk drivers, they say.

Cellphone use was blamed for 96 crashes in 2007, but the Automobile Association suspects the true figure is higher, as it believes the police have only recently made a routine practice of searching car wreckages for phones.

Drivers are likely to be allowed to hold conversations on hands-free connections, despite research at a simulator at Waikato University showing these to be little or no safer than using a hand-held phone.

AA spokesman Mike Noon accepted there was little difference, but said the organisation was taking a practical view in considering that a ban on hand-held phones - supported by 76 per cent of surveyed members - would at least deter drivers from looking down to make calls.

"All phone conversations are distracting, but there will be times when you do need to be contactable," he said.

"We've been using cellphones in cars for a long time, so we think it's reasonable to have a hands-free kit in your car.

"But we say calls should be kept to a minimum, and if you're in difficult driving conditions, don't answer the phone."

Mr Noon said discouraging youngsters from answering texts immediately was a particular problem, because of strong peer pressure for them to do so.

He had asked cellphone companies if phones could be programmed to bounce back texts automatically if recipients were driving, but had been told the technology was not readily available.

Mr Noon said parents should refrain from texting their children at night to ask where they were "because what could be more tragic than sending them a text that makes them have an accident?"

Waikato University road safety researcher Sam Charlton, an associate professor of psychology, said cellphone conversations of any kind almost doubled the time it took drivers to react to hazardous situations.

"Most people need about two and a half seconds to react to a hazard, but you can add a couple of seconds to that if you are talking on a cellphone."

An extra two seconds would add 55m to the stopping distance of a driver travelling at 100km/h.

- With NZPA

- NZ Herald

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