Time to disable mobile phones in cars

Most drivers know the importance of keeping their eyes on the road. Even at only 60 kmh, if you look at your phone for only 2 seconds, you travel 33 metres blind. Too many drivers regularly travel blind because they use mobile phones.

Distraction caused by using a mobile while driving contributes to more and more road accidents in Australia. Some claim it is the leading cause of accidents, ahead of speeding and drink/drug driving. In response, head of Australasian College of Road Safety, Lachlan McIntosh, wants the government to put mobile disabling technologies into government vehicles.

Set an example

These kinds of devices are like alcohol interlocks – they force drivers to change their behaviour.

If the government put phone disabling software in its vehicles, it would set an example for other organisations and individuals. McIntosh says we must encourage providers to recognise the role of their technologies in promoting or inhibiting safe driving. He says this is better than simply blaming and punishing the driver with fines.

International trend

Meanwhile, the UK government is considering mandating software to disable mobile phones in everybody’s vehicles. A 2014 report found distracted driving was becoming the major cause of death. Deaths from distracted driving are higher than from drink-driving on UK roads.

The UK government will investigate a few options. One is a “drive safe” feature on the phone (similar to “flight mode”) which disables incoming calls, voicemail, texts and email.

According to Allianz research, 60% of German drivers who were in accidents in the past 3 years said they use a mobile while driving. In fact, 75% of them said they were regularly distracted by technology in the car.

Lack of data

Transport NSW Monthly Bulletin does not separate out deaths on NSW roads caused by distraction or by using mobile phones. Its figures show death and injury caused by speeding, alcohol and fatigue. The Centre for Road Safety said mobile phone distraction was a contributing factor in 216 crashes between 2008 and 2012, but only four of these were fatal.

There are few reliable statistics. Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Darren Chester admitted anecdotal evidence from police shows serious crashes result from mobile phone use. Even so,  there was “no formal research to explain the trend”.

Clearly there are some vested interests. For example, the peak body for the telecommunications industry claims only 0.9% of crashes from 2000-2011 involved the driver using a mobile phone. Yet phone ownership rocketed in that period.

Moreover, any software company would gladly win a government contract to install phone-disabling software in all its vehicles.

Unintended consequences

Disabling mobile phones in company vehicles could affect the behaviour of employees in unintended ways. For example, it could force employees to use their phones outside work hours. Or worse, substitute their own mobiles while driving.

As for many other technologies, is this a trade-off of privacy for safety?

One driving instructor lamented that continuing use of safety software in vehicles may just be making drivers dumber.

Whether or not the Australian government decides to install phone-disabling software, your green slip will be cheaper with a clean and safe driving history.

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