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Update the road rules for tech that distracts drivers

The National Transport Commission (NTC) proposes a long overdue update to the Australian Road Rules. The rules don’t recognise all the distracting technologies available to drivers, whether for entertainment or safety. They may also be confused about what technology is safe to use while driving. It’s time to make it clear what supports and what distracts drivers.

Old rules have not kept up

Australia first adopted an approach to mobile phones in 1999 when people used them mainly for texts and calls. Now mobile phones have so many uses, thanks to an explosion of apps, the road rules have not kept up. Today, there is a vital distinction between tech functions likely to distract from the driving task and tech functions supposed to aid driving.

Sometimes the same technology may be used to support or distract drivers.

There are also many well-known, non-tech distractions to driving. Many are involuntary, for example, the baby in the back suddenly starts to scream. But the road rules don’t even address voluntary, non-tech distractions while driving, such as eating a messy sandwich.

Australians are distracted

Driver distraction is a growing problem for road safety, but there is no real description of it. The NTC proposes:

Driver distraction is the voluntary or involuntary diverting of attention, in a visual, manual, auditory or cognitive sense, away from the driving task to focus on a competing secondary activity.

For example, voluntary manual distraction is choosing to hold your phone and voluntary cognitive distraction is having a conversation on it. Involuntary cognitive distraction may occur when the phone rings and you want to answer it but cannot.

Of course, phones are not the only distraction while driving:

  • A Victorian study found in-vehicle tech distraction cost $1.2 billion in fatalities and serious injuries over 5 years
  • Australian drivers are doing a non-driving task every 96 seconds
  • GPS-assisted driving, particularly when visual, is more distracted
  • Drivers glance more frequently at their smartwatch than their phone.

Which devices hurt your driving?

Unfortunately, it is not clear which devices, or which functions on those devices, conflict with the driving task. Many drivers are using multiple devices, including autonomous technologies like assisted cruise control, or portable devices like a smartwatch. There are no rules about smartwatches, but they may be even more distracting than mobiles because they are smaller and attached to the driver’s body.

Manufacturers offer glowing incentives to buy technology, but these are not always balanced with its consequences for distraction and safety. Assisted cruise control, for example, may encourage drivers to do more non-driving tasks or they could use it more often when already distracted.

Meanwhile, companies keep adding options for non-driving tasks. For example, General Motors is developing a platform to allow in-vehicle, online shopping!

In many new vehicles, there are multi-functional buttons on the steering wheel and dashboard, voice commands, touch screens, head-up displays on windscreens and computer-generated images. It’s hard to know where to look and listen.

Need tech-neutral rules

Last week’s greenslips.com.au blog said many people trust the technologies in their vehicles too much and take risks. Unfortunately, this kind of complacency creates a context for more accidents. If vehicles become fully autonomous, there is a real risk drivers will become bored and stop monitoring their vehicles at all.

The NTC wants to develop new rules that aim for safer road users, whatever the cause of distraction and the technology used. In other words, the road rules should be technology-neutral.

Greenslips.com.au will look out for an NTC discussion paper around June 2019 on updating our approach to using technology while driving.

Who should be responsible for distracting technologies? What do you think?

Corrina Baird

Writer and expert greenslips.com.au

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered first hand what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years of writing and research in financial services, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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