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Time to disable mobile phones in cars

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

Distraction caused by using a mobile while driving contributes to more and more road accidents in Australia. Some even claim it is the leading cause of accidents, ahead of speeding and drink/drug driving. In response, the 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 to follow. McIntosh says it is also crucial to 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 phone use in everybody’s vehicles. A 2014 report found distracted driving was on the way to becoming the major cause of death and higher than the number of drink-driving deaths on UK roads.

The UK government will investigate a few options, including 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 have been 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 mobile phone use. Figures given are for death and injury caused by speeding, alcohol and fatigue. The Centre for Road Safety has said mobile phone distraction was a contributing factor in 216 crashes between 2008 and 2012, but only four of these were fatal.

There is a paucity of reliable statistics. Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Darren Chester admitted that anecdotal evidence from police shows serious crashes result from mobile phone use but 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 even though 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

If mobile phone use is disabled in company vehicles, this could affect the behaviour of employees in unintended ways. For example, they may be forced 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 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.