It was an ignominious end to my holiday.

While behind the wheel, I whipped out my cellphone to snap a pic of a personalised plate (the immortal "EAT PIE"), thinking only about how good it would look on my Insta.

Seconds later, I saw lights flash. It turned out the vehicle behind me was an unmarked police car. I was given a telling off, an $80 fine, and 20 demerit points.


I was willing to take my oats. It was a stupid and dangerous thing to do.

But that message is not sinking in. A decade after it was made illegal to use a phone while driving, thousands still commit the same offence, month in, month out.

In fact, the number of offences has been trending upwards (see box below) and September 2019 - the most recent month for which Police have stats - was the worst ever with 5226 drivers fined.

Our increasing addiction to the instant gratification of social media and messaging means more and more offending, but law enforcement isn't adapting to keep up.

Part of the problem is that once my embarrassment had subsided, I realised $80 and 20 demerit points (it takes 100 within two years to lose your licence for three months) was not really much of a deterrent. There's been no change to either penalty since 2009 - meaning inflation has made the amount even more trivial.

AA spokesman Dylan Thomsen agreed. He told me he thought the Government should consider higher fines.

Fines have been increased elsewhere he said. In most Australian states, a ticket will run to hundreds of dollars. Last year, for example, Queensland jacked up its penalty for using a cellphone while driving from $400 to $1000.

Yet Thomsen wasn't convinced that $1000 fines would make any difference here - and certainly not in themselves. The real issues, he said, were that people didn't think there was much chance of being caught and that they didn't appreciate the risk.


And it is a very real risk: I was shocked and ashamed to learn that Ministry of Transport figures show 46 people died in crashes between 2009 and 2018 and 885 others were injured, 125 seriously, after drivers were distracted by cellphones.

Thomsen said the answers were more education and better technology. "Technology has been the problem and it needs to be part of the solution as well." (See an iPhone guide below).

Most late-model smartphones have a driving setting that sends calls to voicemail if the handset senses it's moving so fast it must be in a moving car. The AA would like to see those features turned on by default and be opt-out rather than opt-in.

Some countries have also introduced roadside cameras that can spot mobile phone use by a driver. The AA would like to see that technology considered here.

Stop pussyfooting and confiscate phones

Road-safety campaigner Clive Matthew-Wilson takes a tougher line.

He wants the police to permanently seize cellphones used by the drivers of moving vehicles.

"First offence you lose your cellphone. Second offence you lose your cellphone and your number. Third offence you lose your cellphone and your number, plus your car is impounded for seven days," he said.

"I guarantee this policy would have an instant and permanent effect on the number of people using cellphones while driving."

He added, "Why is the government still pussyfooting around about enforcing the law? The government seems more worried about upsetting drivers than saving lives."

Matthew-Wilson favours a total ban on phone use in cars, beyond navigation.

Things could change, maybe, later this year

Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter was largely in sympatico with the AA, even if actual changes seemed trapped in the slow lane.

"I agree New Zealand's infringement fee for using a mobile phone, while driving, is light when compared to other offences which present a similar or lesser safety risk," she said in an emailed statement.

"The Ministry of Transport is reviewing the appropriateness of transport-related infringement fees and fines as part of a broader Fees and Penalties review.

"I expect officials to provide me with further advice on this matter in the first half of 2020."

Photo / 123rf
Photo / 123rf

What about hands-free?

The AA's Thomsen said he would prefer an outright ban on any cellphone use in a vehicle.

"Some people say talking on a hands-free kit is no different from talking to a passenger," he said.

"But a passenger will moderate their speech if you've got a tricky stretch of driving. They can be like a co-pilot; an extra set of eyes."

A person on the other end of the phone is oblivious. Coping with them is far more of a mental distraction, according to research collated by the AA (and Matthew-Wilson points to American National Safety Council stats that say of cellphone-related crashes, 21 per cent involve hands-free calling).

But Thomsen also acknowledges that a ban on hands-free calling would be almost impossible to enforce.

He said the Government needs to concentrate on getting the message out there that the risk is genuine.

"Fines are too light but also need to look at a range of actions rather than just the fine alone because enforcement on its own unlikely to solve. The police can't be everywhere."

POSTSCRIPT: Dangerous pedestrians

It's not just drivers who cause phone-related problems.

My holiday also saw me drive from Twizel to Aoraki Mt Cook - one of NZ's most scenically-stunning routes.

Along the way - twice - I almost ran over groups of young tourists dancing bang in the middle of the road, trying to capture images of the mountain in the background on their phones at the same time. Presumably, this was for Tik Tok.

I almost ran over these rogue pedestrians.

Someone will, if the fad continues.

Photo / 123rf
Photo / 123rf

Make your phone safe for driving


Apple's iOS (the software that runs an iPhone or iPad) includes a built-in Do Not Disturb While Driving feature which silences incoming calls, TXTs, emails and other alerts while you are driving. It also prevents your screen from turning on which may distract you while you're driving.

Please note: This feature is available on iOS 11 and above.

Steps to activate:

Tap Settings.

Tap Do Not Disturb.

In the DO NOT DISTURB WHILE DRIVING section, tap Activate.

Three options appear on your screen.

Select one of the following options:

Automatically – The feature is enabled when your phone detects you are in a moving vehicle (NZTA recommended).
When Connected to Car Bluetooth – The feature is enabled when your phone is connected to your car's Bluetooth
Manually – The Do Not Disturb While Driving feature will need to be manually turned on in the Control Centre each time you are driving


You can download a range of apps that can help prevent your phone from distracting you while you're driving from the Google Play Store. We recommend finding an app which does the following while you are driving:

• Automatically starts when you are driving
• Silences calls, TXT, email and other alert notifications
• Prevents your screen from turning on and notification lights from flashing
• Automatically TXT people to let them know you will respond when you stop driving

Source: Vodafone NZ.