Espiner on cars and cellphones

A very good blog by Colin Espiner:

Why is banning handheld cellphones in cars?

I remember his predecessor, transport safety minister Harry Duynhoven, agonising over this one. First he was for the idea, then he wasn’t, then he was again. In the end he never got around to it.

Joyce has picked this one up, however, and appears ready to push it through into law. The only debate seems to be over the size of the penalty. A $50 fine or $100? Demerit points as well? That could lead to loss of licence.

And the question I have is whether the banning of handheld cellphones in car has ever been proven to reduce the number of crashes? Does it actually lead to less use of cellphones or does it just criminalise hundreds of thousands of people and results in lots of fines? Or does everyone just swap to hands free cellphones which are reputed to be as distracting?

I hope the Government has some good research to back up their decision. I remain far from convinced.

But the fact remains that handheld phones are no more dangerous than talking on a hands-free. And, according to the research, less dangerous than turning to talk to passengers in the back seat, fiddling with the stereo, or eating in the car – all of which cause more accidents.

Surely some common sense is required here. You don’t (or at least you shouldn’t) reach for a cup of coffee while overtaking on the open road. You don’t turn to yell at the kids while turning at an intersection. And you wouldn’t pick up the phone while completing a bit of tricky driving or trying to park.

On the other hand, on a straight piece of road with little traffic or while chugging along in rush hour, it might be safe to make a quick call. It’s all a matter of judgment, which is surely what driving – and many other things – is all about.

Exactly. Even with a hands free phone I will often stop talking to someone while reversing. Or if the weather is really bad. Or the traffic difficult. But sometimes it is quite safe to talk on the phone. Encourage safer use of phones rather than try to ban handheld phones.

My fear is that by banning handheld cellphones the Government is treating the public like idiots who can’t be trusted to know when it is reasonable to use one. Speed limits and alcohol bans are one thing. Handheld phones are quite another.

If you are pissed, you are pissed for the entire trip. Most people only use the phone for a few minutes on a trip, and do judge when it is safe to do so. For example a quick call at the lights to say you are running late. That will now be illegal if done on a hand held.

I guess National must have polled on this issue, and maybe there isn’t much public outrage. Certainly I think most agree that texting while driving is pretty silly. But I would have thought Joyce would have bigger issues to deal with in his portfolio than banning something for marginal, and probably debatable, safety gains.

Given National was once lukewarm on this idea, I can only conclude a bit of official capture has gone on here, a bit like Kate Wilkinson over the folic acid in bread debate.

In the wake of any skillful public relations campaign, however, I guess it will be pushed through. I wonder, though, whether public resentment might start building once the fines start rolling in.

Public polls have (sadly) shown strong support for such a measure. But I think the Government should be careful here. No-one will vote for a party because they banned handheld cellphones in cars . But if tens of thousands of NZers get fined for receiving a phone call, let alone lose their license then they could well vote against the party that did it.

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