Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

AA calls for cellphone crackdown

Drivers snapped using mobile phones. Photo / Doug Sherring
Drivers snapped using mobile phones. Photo / Doug Sherring

New figures showing hundreds of motorists are still flouting the law by driving while using cellphones have sparked a call for tougher policing and stiffer penalties.

Data released to the Herald under the Official Information Act lays bare the carnage caused by using cellphones behind the wheel since the practice was outlawed nearly four years ago.

New Zealand Transport Agency statistics show there have been 424 crashes where cellphone use was cited as a factor, including 24 resulting in serious injury and 110 involving lesser injuries.

Nearly 200 such crashes were recorded in 2010; however that number dropped to 153 last year and 45 in the year to date.

Since 2009, there have been nearly 150 cases where the driver was at fault and was using a cellphone, while 25 passengers, seven pedestrians and four cyclists were hurt in cellphone-related accidents.

Police have also handed out nearly 25,000 tickets for the offence and as recently as May issued 1171 notices - the second-highest number for a single month to date.

Police figures show officers have issued an average of 780 tickets each month since the ban and last November issued a record 1286.

The Automobile Association has slammed the numbers as "unacceptable" and called on police to mount a new targeted campaign.

"The New Zealand public has had its honeymoon and we know now that we shouldn't do it," AA motoring general affairs manager Mike Noon said yesterday.

"This is not a minor issue and from the AA's view, we think it's time the police started getting pretty stiff on it, with stiffer penalties."

Mr Noon suggested a higher fine than the present infringement fee of $80, as well as a larger number of demerit points than the current 20.

"A lot of good people are seeing other drivers using their phones and are getting quite angry about it. Now we really need to increase the enforcement and clean up these people who shouldn't be doing it."

Tragedies since the ban include the case of 93-year-old pedestrian Phyllis Penman, knocked down and killed by 21-year-old Curtis Lawson as he read a text in March 2010.

In January last year, Nathan Dodkin, 21, a Fastways Courier driver, died when he veered across State Highway 3 near Tariki in Taranaki and collided with a truck. He had sent and received 13 texts before the crash.

Last month, a young woman texting while driving in Paradise Valley Springs Rd, Rotorua, failed to take a corner and her car flipped before landing at the bottom of a ravine. She survived.

The practice topped AA Insurance's top 10 driver distractions for 2011, based on a survey of 3550 drivers.

About 16 per cent of respondents admitted they had used their phones to text while on the road - more than double the previous year's rate - and more than 15 per cent said that despite the law change, they still often used their mobile to text or call without a hands-free kit in their car.

AA and the Transport Agency have endorsed the free and innovative DriveSafe service from Vodafone, which automatically replies to texts received while the user is driving.

The service, activated by texting DRIVE ON to 760 and DRIVE OFF to the same number to deactivate, has been used by 2500 people in its first few months.

- additional reporting: APNZ

- NZ Herald

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