Sam Boyer

Sam Boyer is a police reporter for the NZ Herald.

Dozens snapped on motorway using cellphones

No call or text is worth risking a life, say police after dozens pictured ignoring ban on hand-held mobiles

The driver whose boss defended his cellphone use. Photo / Richard Robinson
The driver whose boss defended his cellphone use. Photo / Richard Robinson

The driver pictured here was travelling on a motorway, with one hand cupping a phone to his ear and the other holding a cigarette.

He was one of 49 motorists using cellphones spotted on a short stretch of inner-city Auckland motorway in just an hour this week.

The Herald clocked the drivers texting and calling as they travelled at speed through Spaghetti Junction on their way into the city.

"That's concerning," said Inspector Peter McKennie, acting national road policing manager. "There's a proportion of the public that don't take it [the ban on using handheld mobiles] seriously. No call or text is worth risking yours or someone else's life."

Cellphones were contributing factors in two serious crashes in Waikato this week and a fatal crash in the Bay of Plenty a fortnight ago.

The Herald's survey was conducted on Thursday from the Hopetoun St bridge above State Highways 1 and 16, watching drivers heading north.

We spotted 33 drivers on calls and 19 texting or reading their phones. We also saw distracted drivers reaching for things on other seats, listening to headphones, reading, eating and drinking.

A similar survey 18 months ago in the same spot caught 29 drivers using their phones.

One example spotted this week was the man in a van with no hands on the wheel, smoking and talking on the phone.

Yesterday, his boss, Peter McInally of Trilect Electrical Services, said his employee was doing nothing he himself wouldn't do.

"It's pretty much the same I will do in my car every day. I will take a [small] fine every time, rather than miss a call and turn away business.

"I have had tickets and I will get more, and that doesn't discourage me, to stop answering my phone."

There were no suitable hands-free kits for vans available that didn't echo, he said, or he would buy them.

In the meantime, it was "mathematics" to incur a spot fine for being caught using a phone while driving if an employee could secure a contract, Mr McInally said.

"You can talk on the phone and look at the road," he said. "Our customer is more important to us than a fine."

But Mr McKennie said the driving of Mr McInally's employee was totally irresponsible. "That could quite easily be considered careless driving, at the very least."

In 2009, it became illegal to use handheld mobile phones while driving. Since then, the number of recorded monthly offences have almost doubled, police statistics show.

Last year, there were more than 1100 recorded offences per month on average.

Other examples of distracted drivers spotted during the survey included a man reading a map book pressed against his steering wheel.

Another man, towing a Hirepool trailer with his car, was so busy playing with the hands-free phone kit on the dashboard that he almost took a wrong turn-off, before making a drastic late lane change across a median in front of another vehicle.

Jade Beale, 26, who runs "the text can wait" campaign, said driver attitude needed to change.

In 2011, she was seriously injured with her sister and friend when their car was hit by a female driver texting in Waikato. The woman died in the collision.

"I think, at the moment, you kind of have to be involved in something or see something first-hand to get the message," Ms Beale said. "It's not until you kind of shock someone that they get the message.

"I hope one day people will see it like drink-driving and see the seriousness of it."

Next week is Road Safety Week. The theme this year is preventing driver distraction.

"It's important to remember that a moment's inattention can have serious consequences," Associate Transport Minister Michael Woodhouse said.

Father's plea to go mobile-free

Matt Ruddell, whose former partner Tracey O'Brien died a fortnight ago in a crash that also hospitalised his two children, says people need to learn to "divorce" their phones.

The 27-year-old, who has spent the past two weeks in Starship children's hospital with his children, said the loss of their mother had been a "wake-up call" for him to get off his phone in the car.

He hoped others wouldn't need to suffer a similar loss to understand the importance of ditching the cellphone.

"Is the call or the one text message really worth it? Is it worth what we're going through?
"It's just been a massive wake-up call ... Just divorce your phone. If there's a call and it's that important, pull over," he said.

Ms O'Brien, 26, died when her car crossed the centre line outside the Charlemagne Lodge wedding venue in Te Puna, near Tauranga. Three-year-old daughter Faith and 4-year-old son Phoenix survived and are now out of the high dependency unit and in a ward together.

Police have said the early indications were that she was using her phone.

When told about the driver smoking a cigarette and talking on his phone, Mr Ruddell was amazed: "If you've got your hands full and you're trying to drive, that's beyond ridiculous."

He has admitted to using his phone while driving in the past, but said he now leaves it on the passenger side floor.

He now texts before he leaves, he said, and has been encouraging friends and family to do likewise.

- NZ Herald

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