Editorial: Some action at last on drivers and cellphones

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On the matter of road safety, the Transport Minister does not have a hard act to follow. Harry Duynhoven was one of the least influential members of the previous Government. Nonetheless, it is heartening to see Steven Joyce ready to act decisively to ban drivers from using hand-held cellphones. So dangerous is the practice and so widespread is the support for a ban that this issue should have been settled several years ago. It is, as Mr Joyce suggests, a "no brainer". There is no reason why he should not make the necessary rule changes quickly, and impose penalties that exceed Mr Duynhoven and Labour's tepid prescription.

Mr Joyce says he is waiting for a Ministry of Transport report on public consultation on cellphones. Not surprisingly, this is understood to show a broad level of consensus. So broad and so well known that this report was redundant before the first word was written.

For years, the likes of the Automobile Association, guided by 76 per cent of surveyed members, the Insurance Council and the Land Transport Safety Authority have pressed for a ban. Fifteen months ago, they were even joined by the country's two cellphone giants, Vodafone and Telecom, after a young man killed an elderly Ashburton couple while texting and driving under the influence of alcohol.

The appeal for a ban is based, first, on most people's instinctive understanding that using a cellphone, whether for talking or texting, causes drivers to lose concentration.

This notion is supported by any number of research papers. The only question is by how much the practice increases the risk of accidents. Some researchers put this at up to nine times, while others believe it merely quadruples the chance of a crash. Either way, the problem is gathering pace as more young and inexperienced motorists of the texting generation join the motoring population. Between 2002 and 2008, the number of reported accidents involving the use of cellphones more than doubled.

Virtually all comparable jurisdictions have stopped drivers using hand-held cellphones. Long ago, they dismissed the fuzzy notions that have delayed action here. Among those is the argument that cellphones are just one of a number of distractions, such as changing a CD or talking to passengers. But, unlike any other disturbance, cellphone use can be addressed simply. There is no need to treat it as just another distraction that must be tolerated. Likewise, it is nonsensical to suggest the problem could be tackled by education. That goes only so far, especially when a practice is thoroughly ingrained. Cellphones' widespread use also suggests the penalties for a breach of the ban suggested by the previous Government - a $50 fine and 25 demerit points, would be wholly inadequate. Only a sterner fine and demerit punishment will act as a deterrent.

If there is an element of controversy about Mr Joyce's proposal, it lies in its restriction to hand-held cellphones. Much research has noted that the safety issue is not so much the holding of the phone as the decreased concentration caused by the conversation. If so, hands-free connections are equally dangerous. Nonetheless, it is fair to suggest that cellphones have become an essential instrument, especially for tradespeople. It is probably too late to ban them altogether, and the use of hands-free connections, which do not involve drivers looking down to make calls, probably represents a reasonable compromise.

The inactivity of the previous Government on road safety has left Mr Joyce with plenty of work to do. Compulsory third-party insurance and drink-driving are other issues demanding attention. At least, however, he is showing a willingness to deal with the most easily addressed problem.

- NZ Herald

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