8 Apr 2019

Texting and driving: 'Mangled bodies are not nice'

9:49 am on 8 April 2019

More people died in car crashes caused by mobile phone distraction in 2017 than any year since the law banning it came into force.

Close-up Of A Man's Hand Typing Text Message On Mobile Phone While Driving Car

Photo: 123RF

It has prompted calls for harsher penalties for drivers illegally using a phone, following some Australian states where the fine is close to $500. The penalty for using a handheld phone while driving in New Zealand is $80 and 20 demerit points.

Ministry of Transport figures show eight people died, 17 had serious injuries, and 102 others were injured in crashes in 2017 where distraction from a cell phone was a factor. All of these figures are more than any year since the law banning drivers using a handheld device came into force in November 2009.

New Zealand Transport Authority's road safety director Harry Wilson said innocent people were killed by drivers sending texts or changing the music.

"At least 40 percent of the deaths and serious injuries we see are victims. They're not the drivers of cars, they happen to be on the road when someone crosses [the centre line] and runs into them."

Ministry of Transport surveys show almost 40 percent of people admit to writing or reading a text message while they're driving. In 2012, that figure was only 10 percent.

Auckland Transport said texting increased the chance of crashing by 23 times.

Eliot Jessep, whose mother died in a car crash when she was driving and texting, said it should not be a question for any driver.

"The super simple message is: 'Just don't do it. Full stop. Just no.'

"But I think if some harsher penalties were put in place, people are more likely to be more deterred from doing it. The fine still sits [in New Zealand] at $80 - for some people that's a pretty easy chunk of cash to dispose of."

In the Australian state Victoria, the penalty is nearly $500, as well as demerit points. Last year the state recorded its lowest ever road toll, which fell more than a quarter in the past two years.

The editor of the Dog and Lemon car guide, Clive Matthew Wilson, said for some time drivers had been asked "nicely" by authorities to not use their phones, and it was clear that method was not working.

He said tougher measures were needed, such as giving the police the ability to confiscate someone's phone when caught using it while driving.

"Everyone is trying to be nice about it, but mangled bodies are not nice, and the road toll is horrific.

"Do we continually say, 'We can't do that!'? Or, do we get on and do something about it?"

In the first full year after the law was passed - 2010 - around 8000 people were fined for using their phones, according to police figures. It steadily rose and peaked in 2016 at almost 29,000 fines. It fell back slightly to 26,000 in 2018.

Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter said the Ministry of Transport was undertaking a review of road penalties.

"As the Ministry of Transport develops the new road safety strategy, they're looking to ensure that measures designed to achieve deterrence, are effective. This includes the role and structure of infringement fees, which are an important driver of deterrence," she said.

"This work is feeding into the Ministry's broader Offences and Penalties Review which is currently underway, and focuses on ensuring all infringement fees and penalties are appropriate and proportionate to risk."

In the last five years, deaths and serious injuries attributed to phone use while driving rose from six in 2013 to 11 in 2015, and increased to 25 in 2017.

The Ministry of Transport said the actual number was probably higher because it was hard to conclusively show someone was using their phone when they crashed.

While the road toll has risen 50 percent since 2013, phone-related deaths and injuries have more than doubled.

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