Keep your eyes on the road

A recent undercover police operation in Australia exposed both an innovative sting and a worrying trend, also reported in New Zealand, of drivers using mobile phones.

Victorian police officers posed as ‘‘squeegee guys’’ at busy intersections, but instead of offering windscreen cleans, they busted dozens of careless drivers either talking or texting on their phones.

About the same time, this newspaper reported the dismaying rise — tripling over two years — in the number of reports of southern motorists using mobile devices while driving. From 81 reports (all logged online) in 2016, to 156 in 2017, to 235 reports so far this year; that suggests a serious problem, especially when it can be assumed the incidents being reported are only a small fraction of the overall instances of such behaviour.

The evidence, indeed the logic, is clear: using a mobile phone while driving is stupid, reckless and dangerous. People are dying in crashes caused solely by a texting or talking driver’s inattention.

The AA claims driving while talking on a hand-held mobile can be as dangerous as driving at — not over — the legal blood-alcohol limit, and that it can increase the risk of being involved in a serious crash by 400%.

Perhaps worse are the cases where drivers have sent or read text messages, a process that requires taking one’s eyes off the road for up to several seconds. That sounds insane — imagine travelling 100kmh and driving blind for 200m — yet such behaviour remains worryingly common.

National road policing manager Superintendent Steve Greally said  recently drivers using mobile phones were now key contributors to crashes, alongside those going too fast and drivers suffering fatigue. And he summed up the situation thus: ‘‘When the stakes are so high with human life, we shouldn’t be multi-tasking; we should be having our eyes on the road and our hands on the wheel.’’

Mobile phones have been  integral tools for most of us for some 20 years, and it seems odd their obviously ill fit with the process of driving a vehicle has not been completely accepted by every driver.

And it is not like the law banning their use while behind the wheel is anything new. In fact, next year will mark a full decade since New Zealand made it illegal for people to operate hand-held mobile phones while driving.

Why is the message not completely getting through? Are we so tied to our phones — which some see as an extension to their hands — that we are unable to complete even a small journey without connecting with somebody via a text or call?

Possibly, as has been suggested frequently, it is the punishment for breaking this particular law that needs to be revised.

Clearly, the prospect of causing a devastating crash is not enough for these idiots. So, if they are not smart enough to realise what they are doing can have catastrophic consequences, let us hit them in an area they will understand.

The fine for being caught using a mobile phone while driving in New Zealand is $80. That is a paltry amount — in Australia, the squeegee cops were able to dish out $500 whacks — and will do nothing to deter people from committing the crime again.

Jack up the fines, keep pushing the message that driving while on a mobile phone is appalling behaviour, and make this stop.

Heck, maybe even arm our police with baseball caps and windscreen wipers, station them on street corners, and get them to do some undercover cleaning-up of mobile offenders.

Every angle should be pursued to eradicate entirely preventable crashes. There are enough dangers on the road without having to worry about this lot.

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