It was the week before Christmas and I was running tight for a meeting. I parked just beyond the Kamo lights and walked back. I heard a horn blaring. A natural thing, I thought, letting a fellow driver know of the change in the traffic lights.
The horn became more persistent and I looked as a flustered looking middle aged woman turned through the lights with a cellphone glued to her ear.
Behind her was a modified car carrying a couple of hooded young men, with the driver yelling out the window" Get off your bloody phone".
The irony for me was apparent. It's usually the older generation pointing the finger at the younger generation about driver behaviour, but when it comes to cellphone driving we are all at fault.
Using a smartphone makes thinking, physical and visual demands on a driver and the growing number of functions smartphones have multiplies the opportunity for them to engage us. Smartphone-distracted driving is now being called the new drink driving.
Official NZ crash data shows cellphone distraction was the cause of 16 deaths, 136 serious injuries and 1079 minor injuries in 2019. International research, though, indicates it is likely to be a factor in many more crashes than reported.
The increasing issue has led the two motoring organisations in New Zealand and Australia (NZAA and AAA) to collaborate on recently reported research to understand and develop solutions to the problem.
The study, carried out by the University of Queensland, involved 10 focus groups and two online surveys involving almost 1300 participants to establish existing behaviour. This study looked at all the ways we are using our phones while driving, what we do and when we do it.
A further dimension surveyed 32 international road safety experts in 13 countries who were asked to rank smartphone driving against other well established risky behaviours - speeding, driving fatigued, drugged driving and driving at the legal alcohol limit.
The research indicated that more than half of us are prone to call and text while driving with 75 per cent of us likely to use the phone in a stop/start situation or at traffic lights.
A higher percentage of older drivers (over 26 years of age) use social media, mainly in stop/start, and almost all young people use entertainment apps, such as music or podcasts while at the wheel. Young drivers are learning restraint and are more likely to use a do not disturb mode than older drivers.
The experts rated holding a phone and looking at the screen for more than two seconds while driving, increased the risk of a crash by a factor of four, the highest rating of the risky behaviours they rated.
But what to do about it? Planned smartphone driving is what we do when we put the phone beside us as a driver. It is part of our driving intention, we are likely to use it.
We, as a nation, take the punitive stick to that usage. Using a cellphone while driving in New Zealand incurs an $80 fine and 20 demerit points (100 demerits and you are disqualified).
Australians punish cellphone drivers with fines up to $1000 and three demerits (12 for disqualification). Some advocates here believe that progressively confiscating the phone, then the number, then the car for repeat offenders will really send a message.
Behaviour modification, though, does not necessarily come from waving the big stick. Using the newfound insight, the research partners have developed the Drive in the Moment online toolkit which is designed for users to understand the dangers, rate the risks and make a mental plan to change the response the next time they are tempted to use their phone while driving.
The Drive in the Moment toolkit is a partnership between NZAA and Students Against Dangerous Driving (SADD). It is a road safety initiative targeting young drivers to be safer, take less risk, have a plan, ditch the distractions and drive in the moment.
Try out the toolkit yourself and ask about SADD at a secondary school near you.
• John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.