Sunday, October 13, 2013

Laws on phone use while driving could get tougher

Drivers illegally texting or using mobile phones may be photographed by police, and their phones surrendered as evidence after a crash, under a NSW government plan to increase prosecution rates and improve road safety.

Transport NSW is also considering extending the ban on provisional P1 drivers using mobile devices, even in hands-free mode, to all young drivers.

But the government has rejected a call by the NRMA and NSW Police to increase the standard $298 fine for drivers caught repeatedly using a mobile device.

The NSW government's response to the Staysafe inquiry into mobile phones and road safety comes as new data shows police are issuing fewer fines. The Office of State Revenue says 2228 drivers were fined for mobile phone offences in August, less than half the number fined in August last year (4522). In 2012-13, a total of 36,584 mobile phone fines were issued, down from 42,377 in the previous year, and 52,691 in 2010-11.

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The drop comes despite tougher mobile phone laws, including a ban on touching a phone with any part of the body while driving, stopped at lights or in traffic, coming into effect in November last year.

The police told the inquiry the use of mobile phones by drivers involved in crashes was under-reported because they had no power under transport laws to compel drivers to surrender their phones. A phone could be seized only if there was evidence it was used at the exact time of the crash.

The government has said it may legislate to make it easier and faster for police to access phone records in a crash investigation, but it will first look at non-legislative options, balanced against privacy issues.

Staysafe committee chairman Greg Aplin, the Liberal MP for Albury, said: ''What is more important, saving lives or privacy? It will come down to that.''

Mr Aplin welcomed the NSW government's education programs in schools that taught children about the dangers of using mobile phones while driving, but said tough deterrents were also needed to change behaviour.

''We have to get the self-discipline that comes from penalties,'' he said. ''If we increase the risk of being caught, it achieves the objective of making roads safer.''

The government wants to make it easier for police to enforce penalties. ''Future legislative reform may be considered to allow photographic evidence from police operated cameras to be used for prosecution of mobile phone offences,'' it said in its response. ''The NSW Police Force will investigate various camera technologies that could be used to complement on-road enforcement offences of illegally using a mobile phone while driving.''

Mr Aplin welcomed the move to photographic evidence. ''There is a lack of enforcement. Police have to be in the car adjacent to record an offence,'' he said.

An NRMA survey last month found 91 per cent of drivers admitted to texting or reading emails, half updated Facebook and played games, and 76 per cent took photos behind the wheel. Phones must be secured in cradles to be legally used, or accessed with Bluetooth technology.

The inquiry also examined the distractions arising from using GPS in cars that advise on traffic or road routes.

However, workload managers - which detect when a driver is likely to be distracted and act to divert an incoming phone call, for example, if the driver was at an intersection - could potentially improve safety, Mr Aplin said.

Transport NSW would call for workload managers to be included in all new vehicles, if it was proven they had benefits for road safety, the government said.

Amid calls for a separate offence for texting to be introduced, the government said it may not be practical, because police officers would find it difficult to determine if someone was texting or making a voice call.


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