Very few issues attract a very large degree of unanimity, especially when "nanny state" is involved. Governments, it might be surmised, would welcome such occasions as an invitation to act decisively. There are no protests to be endured or votes to be lost. Why, then, does the Government continue to refuse to outlaw text messaging and using hand-held mobile phones while driving? Everybody knows the practices are dangerous and will be stopped at some time. It should be done now.
The topic resurfaced with the sentencing last week of a 20-year-old man who killed an elderly Ashburton couple while texting and driving under the influence of alcohol. The deaths were needless, if only because a wealth of research has pointed to the danger of using cellphones while at the wheel. Several years ago, this persuaded the likes of the Automobile Association, the Insurance Council and Land Transport New Zealand to support a ban. Virtually every other comparable jurisdiction had already taken that action. Subsequently, the likes of Britain have ramped up the penalty imposed on motorists whose use of a cellphone causes the death of a fellow road-user or pedestrian.
Last week, even the country's two cellphone giants, Vodafone and Telecom, threw their weight behind a ban. Raphael Hilbron, of Vodafone, said this would be the tipping point to get drivers to do the right thing. "People know it to be wrong, but because it's not illegal, perhaps there's not as much stigma attached to it and people think, 'Well, I'll do it because it's convenient'," he said. That viewpoint was refreshing and accurate. The practice thrives, in part, because it is condoned tacitly. It also prospers because of the increased popularity of cellphones, especially for texting. If there is no ban, the situation will worsen as more young and inexperienced motorists of the texting generation, often in powerful cars, come to see it as part and parcel of driving.
The Government's response, even in the wake of the Ashburton tragedy, is that more figures are needed on accidents involving mobile phones and distractions in general. It is the same line that was used by Traffic Safety Minister Harry Duynhoven as far back as 2004. It made no sense then and it makes no sense now. The minister's case rests on the assumption that cellphone use is no more dangerous than, say, changing a CD or talking to passengers. Overseas research, however, has concluded that talking on a cellphone is a major distraction. A Montreal University study, for example, found that a cellphone-using motorist was 38 per cent more likely to be involved in an accident.
Even if this were not the case, it is folly to view a relatively new, and increasingly prevalent, distraction as simply one addition to the list of reasons for losing concentration. That suggests it should be tolerated, rather than countered in the interests of all road-users. Yet, unlike some other distractions, such as misbehaving children, cellphone use can be tackled easily. For the purposes of impact and clarity, there must be a ban. Education programmes go only so far. As much is confirmed by continued drink-driving by a small minority, despite extensive advertising.
Popular support for a ban is evidenced by the result of Automobile Association surveys. Road-safety groups and experts have taken the same view, after considering a wide variety of overseas research and the increasing danger of the practice in this country. Officialdom's refusal to act owes nothing to cogent thought. It can be attributed only to pride or stubbornness. Either way, its attitude is extremely unwise, and innocent motorists will continue to pay the cost.