Cellphones‘ deadly side highlighted by students

7 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineMay 23, 2018

Persistent use of cellphones by drivers has prompted students to take a stand on distracted driving, urging New Zealand to Drive Phone Free.

With the road toll rising, and young people over-represented in crash statistics, Students Against Dangerous Driving (SADD) is adding its voice to calls for drivers to keep their eyes on the road and not their phones.

Young people are the group most likely to be involved in crashes caused by distractions in the car. And the safety of young drivers appears to be getting worse. Crashes involving young drivers on learner and restricted licences have risen by 74% since 2013 (compared with an overall increase of 40% for the whole population). Young learner and restricted licence holders now account for around one in seven fatal or serious injury crashes.

SADD has organised a national ‘PhoneFree48‘ campaign over the weekend of 25 to 27 May to raise awareness of the risks of distractions for drivers, and also raise more money for SADD programmes. Participating students will go without their phones for 48 hours (from 6pm Friday to 6pm Sunday), sponsored by family and friends. The focus for the campaign was identified last year at the SADD conference, and the students created the initiative.

“We think cellphones are a huge distraction in cars, particularly for young drivers,” said Piper Young, a SADD national leader at St Dominic‘s College.

New Zealand and international evidence suggests novice drivers are particularly susceptible to diverted attention crashes. Younger drivers aged 15 to 24 years have the highest frequency of diverted attention-related fatal and serious crashes of all age groups. Restricted licence holders are more likely to have diverted attention as a contributing factor in fatal and serious injury crashes (9%) than full licence holders (6%). In general, drivers engaged in text messaging on a cellphone are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers focused on the road.

“Phones are extremely useful but they have addictive qualities, which makes them hard to resist using at any time,” said Young. “It takes discipline to not reach for our phones in the instant we decide we need to know something. We want people to understand that even in our fast-paced lives, not everything needs an immediate response. It‘s just not worth it. With our campaign, we hope we‘ll show people that you can survive without your phone for a whole weekend, so not using your phone while you‘re driving isn‘t actually a hard ask.”

Cellphone use while driving is not just an issue that affects young people. A survey done by the AA shows that about 15% of AA members admit to having recently used their phone illegally while driving, although road safety advocates believe the actual number is much higher than this.

Data on the role of cellphone distraction in crashes is incomplete because some people in crashes lie about their cellphone use, and unless a crash is serious, the police don‘t have the authority to search a person‘s cellphone to see if it was being used at the time.

“SADD wants everyone to take the law seriously. If you have to take a call, it must be hands-free and short. Even hands-free phone conversations take some of your attention off the road. Using apps like Google Maps off your phone can be helpful, but you need to be disciplined and not let the screen draw your attention away from your driving and the road,” said Young.

“We need to start changing our behaviour and our attitude to this issue. Like making the choice not to drink and drive, we want drivers to also choose to not let distractions like cellphones take their attention off the road. Using your phone when you‘re driving could actually kill you or someone else on the road.”

Studies have shown that sending or reading a text message on average takes a driver‘s eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds. At 90km/h that‘s like driving the length of a rugby field blindfolded.

In general, distractions while driving (including from using cellphones) has been established as a factor in about 12% of all crashes in recent years. In 2017, driver distraction was a contributing factor in 40 fatal crashes, 240 serious injuries and 1,187 minor injuries.

And it doesn‘t just affect the driver. For every 100 drivers or riders who died in road crashes where diverted attention was a contributing factor, 85 of their passengers and another 100 road users died with them.

SADD national manager Donna Govorko, who recently joined SADD from the police where she was working in road safety, said the ongoing trend of drivers still letting themselves get distracted by their phones is a real concern.

“I hope the public hears the students‘ message. Having experienced the devastation that road crashes cause to families and communities first-hand, it is heartening to be involved with such passionate students who really want to make our communities safer.”

PhoneFree48 is proudly supported by KiwiPlates. In addition to providing media space for the campaign, a portion of the profits from the sale of personalised plates provides the sole funding for the NZ Transport Agency Community Road Safety Fund, with SADD being one of the main benefactors.