The handheld cellphone in car ban

As widely expected, the Government has announced it will be an offence to use a handheld cellphone while driving. I’m disappointed by this decision, especially by the lack of evidence it will be effective.

From November 1 it will be against the road rules for drivers to text or talk on a handheld cell phone while driving.

The change is part of the Land Transport (Road User) Amendment Rule and will see drivers using handheld mobile phones receive an infringement notice consisting of an $80 fine and 20 demerit points.

So answer five phone calls while driving, and your license may be gone. I’ve not got anything to worry about as my car stereo uses bluetooth to operate as a hands free device, but I can see a lot of people getting pinged. Ironically people will probably get pinged when it is safest to talk on the phone – waiting at the lights, rather than on a motorway, as the latter is hard to detect.

Transport Minister says that driver distraction – particularly through the use of cell phones – is a real issue on our roads.

“There are a lot of other distractions while driving but handheld mobile phone use has grown to become a significant problem. The reality is we need to send a strong signal to all road users that it’s not on.

But why not action on the other distractions? Why not ban smoking in cars? Why not make it compulsory to have radio controls on the steering wheel to minimise the distraction of tuning the radio?

“Texting and driving, in particular, is a total no brainer.

Agreed and anyone seen texting while driving should be charged under the existing law.

Mr Joyce says allowing hands-free recognises that many business and trades people depend on being available on their cell phones for their livelihood, and that hands-free phones are less distracting to operate than handheld phones.

A number of studies dispute hands-free phones are less distracting. It is pleasing to see some recognition of the costs of banning some , but what we have not seen is a full cost benefit of banning hand helds only.

What I would like to see is projected benefits (lives saved and fewer crashes) vs projected costs (people having to buy hands free kits, fines, enforcement, costs to business of employees less contactable).

And for projected benefits I do not mean just an assumption that crashes where cellphone use was a factor will go from the current level to zero. I’d like to see the overseas evidence that a ban of the nature actually reduces the number of crashes where cellphone use was a factor – and by how much. Has the Government got this info? If not, why not?

Between 2003 and 2008, there were 482 injury crashes and 25 fatal crashes in New Zealand where the use of a mobile phone or other telecommunications device was identified as a contributing factor.

25 fatal crashes over six years is a fatal crash every three months on average. Now as I said above one can not assume that volume of fatal crashes will reduce to zero just because of this new law. I suspect most people will still answer their phone if it rings and is important. And many may just swap to handsfree phones also.

Let us be generous and assume the new law will cut the number of fatal crashes by 25%, where cellphone use is a factor. There is still the weighing up of whether it is appropriate to penalise three million drivers who have cars and cellphones for one less fatal crash every year. Is a reduction in the road toll of 0.25% worth the inconvience and costs of this law?

Maybe it is. I’m not 100% opposed. But I would like to see a proper cost/benefit analysis of the new law. I especially would like to see what the actual fall in crashes has been in overseas countries with similar laws. Does it actually decrease the road toll or does it just lead to lots of fines and demerits?

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