Drivers will be fined $80 for texting or talking on a hand-held cellphone from November in a move welcomed by the family of a Canterbury couple killed in a texting-related crash.
Transport Minister Steven Joyce announced the change yesterday, saying it was "not a massively hard decision".
From November 1, anyone caught using a hand-held cellphone while driving will be fined $80 and get 20 demerit points the same penalty for driving 11kmh to 15kmh over the speed limit.
Drivers lose their licence at 100 demerit points.
Motorists will still be able to use hands-free phones and two-way radios, and there is an exemption for 111 calls in emergencies.
Joyce, who admitted to talking on his cellphone while driving, said drivers needed a strong signal that using a hand-held cellphone was not right.
"Texting and driving, in particular, is a total no-brainer," he said. "We're looking for a change in behaviour."
Between 2003 and 2008 there were 482 injury crashes and 25 fatal crashes in New Zealand where the use of a cellphone or other telecommunications device was identified as a contributing factor.
In September 2007, Beverley and Samuel Keating were killed in a crash near Ashburton while returning home from celebrating their 49th wedding anniversary.
The driver of the other car, Robert Stonestreet, was texting while driving. He went through an intersection and slammed into the couple's car.
Samuel Keating's brother, Waimakariri Mayor Ron Keating, said yesterday the ban was "great news".
"We can't bring their lives back, but bringing in such a measure should go quite a way to preventing further unnecessary deaths," he said.
"I'm sure all members of the family and the extended family are pleased that action is going to be taken."
The ban was also welcomed by police. "Using a mobile phone while driving is a massive safety risk," said the Canterbury district police commander, Superintendent Dave Cliff.
Automobile Association spokesman Simon Lambourne urged people not to wait until November to make the change.
"It's something people can do today," he said. "This is not about revenue from fines; it's about safety on our roads."
Green Party MP Sue Kedgley said the fine should be higher.
Telecom spokesman Mark Watts said any cellphone use while driving was distracting.
"There's a marvellous piece of fail-safe technology to deal with this. It's called an on-off switch," he said. "It works beautifully. We would urge people to use it."
Vodafone spokesman Paul Brislen said the ban was "vitally important".
The New Zealand Transport Agency said a print advertising campaign in October with a "significant" budget would highlight the changes.
The other major rule change announced yesterday was mandatory use of headlights for motorcycle and moped riders.
Major changes under the Land Transport (Road User) Amendment Rule:
* Hand-held cellphone use banned while driving.
* Mopeds and motorcycles must use lights during the day.
* Cyclists permitted to make "hook turns" an indirect way to turn right at intersections.
* Cyclists exempt from continuous arm signalling when not practicable.
* Vehicles using a non-rigid towing connection, such as a tow rope, can travel at a maximum of 50kmh.
* Drivers must give way to pedestrians obviously waiting to cross at a pedestrian crossing.
* Seatbelts must be worn "properly".
- © Fairfax NZ News
Why are fewer teens learning to drive?Related story: Teen non-drivers lazy 'narcissists'