Denting the distraction: Is technology the answer to Hunter's mobile phone addiction behind the wheel

ON THE PHONE: "People are not getting the message." A motorist with both hands off the wheel driving in a 60km/h zone on Newcastle Road at Jesmond. Police said the number of mobile phone offences observed was concerning.
ON THE PHONE: "People are not getting the message." A motorist with both hands off the wheel driving in a 60km/h zone on Newcastle Road at Jesmond. Police said the number of mobile phone offences observed was concerning.

EDITORIAL: ‘If I wasn’t on the phone I’d have seen him’

BOTH hands off the wheel, eyes on the screen, tapping away on the keyboard and full speed ahead.

Police officers say the actions of this driver – captured by the Newcastle Herald this week on Newcastle Road at Jesmond – is an example of recklessness on Hunter roads that could lead to tragedy.

It comes as figures released by the Office of State Revenue show that Hunter motorists forked out nearly $13,000 a week – or $676,000 per year – in fines relating to mobile phone offences in 2016/17.

Newcastle motorists were the worst offenders, according to the data, with highway patrol officers in the city handing out more than $209,000 in mobile phone fines.

Phone-wielding drivers in Lake Macquarie were close behind, with highway patrol issuing $206,000 in fines within that jurisdiction. 

In the Hunter Valley highway patrol sector police issued more than $93,000 in fines during 2016/17.

Highway Patrol Northern Region traffic tactician Chief Inspector Bruce McGregor said it was clear “people are not getting the message” about mobile phone use while driving.

The Herald observed seven motorists using a mobile phone while driving on the Link Road at Jesmond in a 15-minute timeframe.

NOT LOOKING: These motorists were captured by the Newcastle Herald on their phones on the Pacific Highway at Highfields. All cars were in motion.

NOT LOOKING: These motorists were captured by the Newcastle Herald on their phones on the Pacific Highway at Highfields. All cars were in motion.

Further, even outside peak traffic times, our photographer was able to capture six pictures of motorists doing the wrong thing on the Pacific Highway at Highfields in a one-hour window.

One of those motorists was seen on the phone as a police car passed by.

Chief Inspector McGregor said the Herald’s observations were concerning. 

He attributed the results to what he says are “busy lifestyles” that lead to poor driver behaviour.

“We are aware that is an element in amongst drivers, that they continue to illegally use their phones whilst driving and our staff are regularly tasked in their duty to address this issue,” Chief Inspector McGregor said.

“I just can’t understand how people take the risk of being distracted while driving.”

Chief Inspector McGregor said motorists should never feel compelled to respond to people via their mobile phones behind the wheel.

“At the end of the day, if you receive a call it goes to voicemail,” he said. “Simple. Why does [a phone] need to consume all of your time, particularly when you’re behind the wheel.”

A motorist can be fined $330 and lose four demerit points for using a mobile phone while driving.

It rises to $439 in a school zone.

According to the data, highway patrol police fined 36 people for using a mobile phone in a school zone in Newcastle last year. Six were fined in Lake Macquarie.

How to stop ‘frightening’ distraction

SHOULD technology be used to fight the distraction of technology? 

The NRMA thinks so.

The motorists’ lobby is weeks away from releasing a report that it says will dissect the issue in detail and propose a range of initiatives that “may help” prevent people using their mobile phones behind the wheel.

The NRMA’s road safety expert, Dimitra Vlahomitros, said technology had a “huge role” to play in stopping dangerous driving.

It has previously been reported that the federal government is considering a range of initiatives to combat the distraction of mobile phones, which Transport Minister Darren Chester said there was “no doubt” had contributed to a rise in road trauma.

One of the initiatives under consideration is using technologies that disable mobile phones when in motion.

Ms Vlahomitros said “driver distraction will continue to grow” as reliance on mobile phones increased in line with further integration into daily life.

“Australia has one of the highest saturations of smartphone use in the world. With smartphone ownership rising to 84 per cent last year, it’s not surprising that this technology has impacted on the automobile industry,” she said. “While the contribution mobile phones play in road crashes is under-reported, the risks are clear. Being distracted from driving for two seconds or more doubles your risk of crashing.

“It’s frightening how many people continue to engage in this dangerous behaviour, despite the known safety risks.”

Ms Vlahomitros said the NRMA was seeking better data to measure the role of mobile phones in crashes, with concrete data hard to ascertain as a result of “under-reporting”.

She said technology was the “missing link” in reducing driver distractions.

“We see the future of technology playing a huge role in stopping dangerous driving,” Ms Vlahomitros said on Friday.

“We know that education and enforcement works but the missing link is technology in addressing driver distractions. NRMA welcomes all technology that tackles distractions inside the car.”