Key Points:

For years, the Government's failure to ban the use of handheld cellphones while driving has been a complete puzzle. So compelling is the case for outlawing the dangerous practice that any delay appears untenable. Finally, the Government seems ready to act. Yet even now, a best-case scenario would not see a ban in place for another 12 months. The Government's approach continues to bear the hallmarks of timidity.

It is no secret that Harry Duynhoven, the Minister for Transport Safety, has been keen to impose a ban. He was, however, unable to gain Cabinet support. It seems senior Government figures were scared of alienating voters, particularly the young, texting generation. That concern has now been overridden by the evidence of any number of opinion polls, which confirms the vast majority of people are appalled by the tacit condoning of the practice. However, an ongoing desire to try to please everyone means the Government's approach, if adopted, would be ineffective.

It proposes that the penalty for breaches of the ban would be a $50 fine and 25 demerit points. But American research suggests that so ingrained is the habit of texting and dialling that modest penalties might not be enough to discourage drivers from using cellphones. That seems a reasonable conclusion, especially given that strict enforcement will be difficult. To have an impact, a penalty of at least $150, plus demerit points, would be necessary.

The Government also plans to go through a lengthy public consultation, thereby postponing the introduction of a ban until July 1, 2009. That process is a waste of time. Opinion polls, support for a ban by the likes of Land Transport New Zealand, the Automobile Association and the Insurance Council, and a mass of research confirm as much. Even Government statistics released yesterday offer a sufficiently convincing case for urgent action. These note that the number of reported crashes involving the use of cellphones has more than doubled over the past six years. Between 2002 and 2007, there were 411 crashes involving injury and 26 fatal accidents in which the use of cellphones or other telecommunications devices was identified as a contributing factor.

Equally compelling is the fact that at least 45 countries, including Australia and most of the European Union, have outlawed handheld phones. In Britain, indeed, matters have moved on to increasing the penalties imposed on motorists whose cellphone use causes the death of a fellow road-user or pedestrian. Persuasive, also, is research which shows that using a cellphone increases the risk of being involved in a crash by up to four times, and the conclusion of a new study by Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University which found that listening to a cellphone led to the same sort of driving errors as the influence of alcohol.

The argument most commonly offered by those opposed to a ban, and a line trotted out by the Government over the past few years, is that cellphone use is only one of a number of driving distractions. It is said to be no more dangerous than changing a CD or talking to a passenger. Yet even if it is accepted that cellphones are not the most dangerous distraction, their prevalence makes them the most common cause of this type of crash. Most importantly, they are a distraction that can be remedied simply.

A ban should have been applied swiftly and forcefully several years ago. When studying comparable jurisdictions on a matter widely considered to be integral to road safety, New Zealand stands out like a sore thumb. It will continue that way for at least another year because of the Government's faint-hearted approach. During that time, the problem will worsen, and some innocent road-users will pay a heavy price.