Human beings have a strange fondness for engaging in behaviours they know are likely to kill them - smoking, swimming with sharks, hard drugs, eating until you can’t see your feet any more - and the seemingly irresistible habit of using a mobile phone while driving a big, deadly old motor vehicle is one of the most mystifying.
Frankly, “using mobile phone while driving” is such a stupid cause of death that, before the advent of the cell phone it would only have been comparable with “reading a book while driving” or “closed eyes while driving”.
And the incredible thing is we all know how dangerous it is, and believe that it is killing, if not us, then our friends and relatives.
A survey of 2000 drivers nationwide by the Australian Automobile Association found that an overwhelming majority of people believe that “being distracted by mobile phones” is the reason behind the recent increase in road deaths in Australia.
No less than 79 per cent of drivers nominated not only ignoring mobile phone rules while driving but texting while driving as the major cause of road fatalities, coming in ahead of speeding (68 per cent) and drugs and drink driving (67 per cent).
So, how dangerous is using your phone while driving?
The reasons why cell phones should not be used while driving are fairly obvious, because even a two-second distraction - taking your eyes off the road to pick up your phone and see who’s calling you for example- increases your risk of crashing.
Even at 60km/h, your car is travelling at more than 16 metres per second, so in those few moments your eyes were on a screen rather than the road you moved far enough to not see a motorcycle, a pedestrian, or someone braking suddenly in front of you.
Other figures suggest that someone stupid enough to text and drive at the same time is increasing their risk of dying by almost 900 per cent.
Research quoted by keepyoureyesontheroad.org.au suggest that "reaching for objects in cars" increases the risk of crashing by 8.8 times for adult drivers, which is one reason why driving with your phone in hand is illegal in every State and Territory in Australia, and you can only use your mobile-phone, even in hands-free mode, if it's in a "commercially designed holder, fixed to the vehicle”.
In the US, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that nearly 3500 people died in distraction-related crashes in 2015.
And despite those dangers, how often do people do it?
According to a recent study conducted by Akshay Vij, a senior research fellow at the University of South Australia, at any given moment, one to two per cent of Australian drivers are using their mobile phone while driving.
Vij, who says his research shows that mobile phone use while driving increases your risk of accident by up to 400 per cent, points out that, in 2016 alone, police in NSW charged 39,000 people for doing so (100 drivers a day are busted for it in NSW and VIC).
“One in three respondents in our survey reported never using their phones while driving; one in two reported rare or occasional use; and one in five reported frequent use,” Vij explained.
“Receiving incoming phone calls while driving was the most commonly reported behaviour: 61 per cent reported having received at least one call while driving in the past two weeks.”
In terms of who is most likely to be found jawing on their Bluetooth, or pulled over by police to cop a fine for using mobile phone while driving, Vij says the media, and some research, tends to point the finger at young people, but that’s not what his survey found.
“Our findings indicate that 18 to 29-year-olds are no more likely than average to use their mobile phones while driving. And 30-39-year-olds report the greatest frequency of use, while those over 65 report the lowest frequency,” he added.
The problem with surveys, of course, is that people lie - and those people who say they never use their phone in the car, ever, lie more than most. Which is why research in the US using sensor data by driving analytics company Zendrive is perhaps most telling of all, because it suggests that most people use their mobile phones while driving, most of the time.
Zendrive analysed more than three million drivers over more than seven billion kilometres of journeys and found that drivers were using their phones on 88 per cent of all journeys they took.
The analytics revealed that the average driver spends 3.5 minutes on the phone per one-hour trip. This sounds a lot worse than the South Australian claim of one to two per cent of drivers, but if you think about how often you see someone in front of you at the traffic lights chatting, and missing the green light, it makes a lot of sense.
"I think a lot of people have anecdotal evidence, a lot of people have a hunch (that the figure is very high),” says Zendrive CEO Jonathan Matus. "You see people using their phones on the road all the time. I know I have done it more than I care to admit.”
So, what are the laws in Australia - and is texting and driving illegal?
Time to go back to the example of reading while driving, yes, texting and driving is illegal. Very.
Fortunately, ingenious systems like Apple CarPlay mean you can now dictate texts, and have them read aloud to you while driving, if it's really that urgent.
Basically, if you’re driving the law in this country says you’re only allowed to use a phone if it can be operated completely hands free (via Apple CarPlay or voice activation).
It is illegal for a driver to hold a phone in their hand for any purpose other than to pass it to a passenger to operate, and yes, that means even if you’re stopped.
It's vital, of course, to think about where you place your mobile phone cradle, although only the QLD government makes a stipulation about this in its rules: "a mobile phone that is mounted in a hands-free mounting bracket on the windscreen must not obscure the driver's view of the road”.
This might seem like common sense, but it's disturbing how often you see people with a phone cradle, or a sat nav, stuck in the middle of their windscreen.
What about at traffic lights?
Still no touching, unless your phone is in a cradle (although this doesn't mean you should sit at a red light reading emails, and failing to notice when it's gone green). It's still illegal to touch your phone while driving, even when the vehicle is stationary. You need to leave the road and be clearly parked if you want to pick it up.
What about Learners?
Across the board, the rule is that L-plate drivers, and most P-platers, are not allowed to use a mobile phone while driving, not in hands-free mode, and not even if it's in a device cradle.
The feeling is that young drivers find it enough of a challenge to operate a car, and that any distractions are dangerous.
The Queensland rules go a step further, making it illegal for the licence-holding supervisor of a Learner driver to use a mobile phone in loudspeaker mode while the L-plater is driving.
How do the states differ?
In most cases, states and territories have written their laws to comply with the Australian Road Rules, but there are a few differences.
In the ACT, South Australia and Tasmania, for example, drivers are banned from using phone-based GPS systems, but they are allowed to use purpose-built sat nav devices for the same thing.
The NT, NSW, Victoria and WA have all added exemptions to their road rules to allow for sat nav use of phones, provided the driver does not touch the device, and the handset is mounted in a cradle.
NSW and VIC also allow you to use the music-streaming functions if the phone is mounted at the time. Queensland's laws aren't specific about using a phone for navigation purposes.
What's the penalty?
The punishment you get for using a hand-held phone while driving is commensurate with how dangerous that behaviour is, although it does vary between states.
Generally you're looking at at least three demerit points and a fine of a few hundred dollars, although it does vary.
In NSW it’s a minimum of $330 and four demerits, rising to $439 if you’re caught doing it in a school zone. In Victoria it’s a minimum of $476 and four demerit points. Queensland is $278 and three points, and WA recently increased its penalty from $250 to $400, and three points.
What can be done?
Aside from simply saying to yourself “don’t text and drive, because you’ll die”, and telling your children when you teach them to drive about texting and driving statistics, we have to look to our lawmakers, and to technology.
The penalty for using mobile phone while driving can push $500, which might put people off once they’ve been stung at least once. And research from the US shows that the states in which mobile phone use is punished most harshly, and policed most constantly, show a greater decline in the habit.
Fortunately Apple, who it would be tempting to blame for creating the whole problem in the first place, have come up with a potentially lifesaving feature called 'Do Not Disturb While Driving'.
Part of the IOS 11 operating system, this feature can automatically detect when you’re driving a car (when you connect Bluetooth to a vehicle, or simply by measuring how quickly you’re passing through Wi-Fi points), and will block notifications and texts and stop you from opening apps on your phone.
If someone calls you, DNDWD will send an automatic text response telling the caller that you’re driving and will get back to them shortly.
The system can be set to allow hands free mobile phones and driving.
NRMA road safety expert Dimitra Vlahomitros welcomed the Apple move, and called technology the “missing link” in addressing the dangers of driver distraction.
“NRMA welcomes all technology that tackles distractions inside the car,” she said. “This will go a long way in ensuring that bad driver behaviour is stopped.”