Cellphones and cars

01:50, Aug 27 2009

Why is Steven Joyce banning handheld cellphones in cars?

I remember his predecessor, transport safety minister Harry Duynhoven, agonising over this one. First he was for the idea, then he wasn't, then he was again. In the end he never got around to it.

Joyce has picked this one up, however, and appears ready to push it through into law. The only debate seems to be over the size of the penalty. A $50 fine or $100? Demerit points as well? That could lead to loss of licence.

The problem, though, is all the research seems to suggest that it isn't the physical act of holding a handheld phone that can be dangerous while driving. It's the distraction from the conversation itself.

In which case, why isn't the Government proposing to ban hands-free kits and two-way radios as well?

Why is Steven Joyce banning handheld cellphones in cars?

I remember his predecessor, transport safety minister Harry Duynhoven, agonising over this one. First he was for the idea, then he wasn't, then he was again. In the end he never got around to it.

Joyce has picked this one up, however, and appears ready to push it through into law. The only debate seems to be over the size of the penalty. A $50 fine or $100? Demerit points as well? That could lead to loss of licence.

The problem, though, is all the research seems to suggest that it isn't the physical act of holding a handheld phone that can be dangerous while driving. It's the distraction from the conversation itself.

In which case, why isn't the Government proposing to ban hands-free kits and two-way radios as well?

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The answer is that National doesn't consider it would be acceptable to the public. And particularly to business, which relies on being able to contact its fleet vehicles, truckies, couriers, and the like.

There's also a safety aspect. Cellphones can be incredibly handy things for notifying emergency services of accidents or other trouble on the road.

But the fact remains that handheld phones are no more dangerous than talking on a hands-free. And, according to the research, less dangerous than turning to talk to passengers in the back seat, fiddling with the stereo, or eating in the car - all of which cause more accidents.

Surely some common sense is required here. You don't (or at least you shouldn't) reach for a cup of coffee while overtaking on the open road. You don't turn to yell at the kids while turning at an intersection. And you wouldn't pick up the phone while completing a bit of tricky driving or trying to park.

On the other hand, on a straight piece of road with little traffic or while chugging along in rush hour, it might be safe to make a quick call. It's all a matter of judgment, which is surely what driving - and many other things - is all about.

My fear is that by banning handheld cellphones the Government is treating the public like idiots who can't be trusted to know when it is reasonable to use one. Speed limits and alcohol bans are one thing. Handheld phones are quite another.

I guess National must have polled on this issue, and maybe there isn't much public outrage. Certainly I think most agree that texting while driving is pretty silly. But I would have thought Joyce would have bigger issues to deal with in his portfolio than banning something for marginal, and probably debatable, safety gains.

Given National was once lukewarm on this idea, I can only conclude a bit of official capture has gone on here, a bit like Kate Wilkinson over the folic acid in bread debate.

In the wake of any skillful public relations campaign, however, I guess it will be pushed through. I wonder, though, whether public resentment might start building once the fines start rolling in.