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Driven to a deadly distraction

Being distracted by eating, drinking and especially using a mobile phone can be deadly. But Australians do it. And they do it en-masse . Australia is now looking at updating its Road Rules. (Photo: Shutterstock).
 Australian drivers really do this while driving. Really.   (Photo: Shutterstock).
Australian drivers really do this while driving. Really. (Photo: Shutterstock).

Driving vehicles while simultaneously watching video on a mobile telephone, texting, dialling and calling friends, or trying to connect the phone to the radio, is not the
safest behaviour.

But they’re all activities that Australian drivers engage in while driving vehicles. Driver-distraction is endemic in Australia – local drivers are distracted from driving every 96 seconds while they engage in behaviour such as eating or personal grooming.

However, the advent of modern communications technology such as, obviously, the mobile phone, has created a new, yet poorly understood and under-researched, form of driver distraction.

Dr Geoff Allan, acting CEO of the National Transport Commission, a governmental advisory body, said “We recognise that driver distraction from technology and other factors is a safety risk, but it is not as well understood as other factors such as drunk driving and speeding.”

The National Transport Commission is therefore now in the first stage of consulting road users about a technology-neutral updating of the domestic road rules. The ultimate aim is to rewrite part of the Australian Road Rules to cope with modern and driver-distracting technologies such as mobile phones.

Mobile phones pose a distraction risk

Mobile phone-induced distractions are clearly one of the newer and bigger distraction risks for drivers. Looking away from the road at a phone for a mere two seconds while driving at 40 km/h will result in a distance travelled of 22.22 metres (a speed of 24.85 mph will result in a distance of about 72 feet in U.S. customary units). A lot of very bad things can go wrong in a few seconds if a driver is not paying attention to the road.

But, nonetheless, playing with, or looking at, or generally operating a mobile phone while driving is something that Australians do.

Nearly half of all drivers under the age of 30 in the Australian state of Victoria have admitted to using their mobile phones while driving, according to the state’s Transport Accident Commission. And it’s not just Victoria. Between July 2014 and June 2015, over 35,500 fines were handed to motorists in New South Wales for mobile-phone related driving offences. Using a phone could account for seven percent of all non-driving tasks while driving a car and could be a factor in up to 23 percent of all accidents, according to data from the Australian Naturalistic Driving Study.

 This driver has increased his car crash chances by a factor of TEN; using a mobile phone while driving is a very risky behaviour.  (Photo: Shutterstock).
This driver has increased his car crash chances by a factor of TEN; using a mobile phone while driving is a very risky behaviour. (Photo: Shutterstock).

Using a phone while driving is a pretty risky behaviour

Crash data from the Australian state of New South Wales from 2010 to 2014 showed 236 crashes in which hand-held mobile phones were a factor. Drivers who look at their phones are three times more likely to crash than drivers who do not look at their phones. Dialling a number on a mobile phone multiplies the risk of crashing by four.

Other phone based activities are even worse – texting, browsing and emailing while driving increase the chance of a crash by a factor of ten!

But it’s not just mobile phones that induce driving distraction. Commercial truck drivers use a variety of in-cab technologies too. And those technologies also pose a risk of inducing driver-distraction. Technologies can include, but are not limited to, navigation systems, fuel-economy systems, fleet management software and in-truck communications systems.

Researchers do have some insight into how technologies affect drivers. For instance, usage of global positioning system technology may degrade driving performance. And in-vehicle information systems can also degrade driving performance, although more thoughtful designs of in-vehicle information systems can avoid increasing driver workload and distraction.

To tackle the issue of driver-distraction, the Transport Infrastructure Council, one of the top transport policy-considering bodies for Australian governments, directed the National Transport Commission to begin its consultation. The National Transport Commission is a statutory body set up to advise to the top tiers of Australian government. Among its responsibilities is the duty to review and recommend changes to the model Australian Road Rules.

Rules, rules, rules

Although the model rules are not, in themselves, effective in law, the Australian states and territories will enact or regulate a substantially similar version of these rules into local law.

“However, the road rules are silent on which behaviours associated with distraction should be avoided or minimised. It is also not clear whether the use of newer technologies, like wearable devices, are regulated by the existing road rules,” Dr. Allan said.

The Commission is looking to better understand the driver distraction risk so it can recommend changes to the model Australian Road Rules.

There are three rules in focus. The first is Rule 297 which forbids a person from driving a vehicle unless he or she has proper control of it. Driving a vehicle without being in proper control is a criminal offence.

The second is Rule 299, which forbids the driving of vehicle that has screens that either show images to a driver seated in the normal driving position or are likely to distract another driver. This rule basically forbids drivers from watching TV while driving, although there is an exemption for drivers using screens as “driver’s aids” (for example, navigation screens). Finally, in quite a long and complex provision, Rule 300 basically forbids the use of mobile phones in vehicles unless they are hands-free or are being used as a driver’s aid.

What the Commission wants to know

The key research aims of the Commission in its driver-distraction research project are to reach a common understanding of the problem; identify the factors associated with distractions; find out if modern devices can be used to increase safety, review the Australian Road Rules; provide an analysis of the key issues; and, finally, draft the new Road Rules.

A list of questions has been provided to the general public for comment and insight. Any member of the public anywhere in the world may comment. Input is being sought into whether the proposed definition of driver distraction is adequate; how a distinction can be drawn between manageable and unmanageable levels of driver distraction; whether there is any evidence for such a distinction; whether conventional causes of distraction (e.g. babies crying; spilled coffee) should be treated equally with technology-induced causes of distraction; who should be held responsible for influencing the risk of driver distraction; examples of technology that can help with and/or distract from the driving task; the transition to automation and many more.

The National Transport Commission’s existing consultation closes in mid-February. A discussion paper will be issued in June 2019 for further public input and to canvass options for solving problems. The Transport Infrastructure Council is scheduled to decide on major policy by mid-2020, which will be immediately followed by a re-drafting of the appropriate parts of the Road Rules.

More details can be found in the issues paper.

Make a submission

Interested parties can make a submission via the National Transport Commission website or by emailing the project manager Luis Gutierrez at The closing date for submissions is February 14, Australian Eastern Standard Time.

U.S.-based readers who would like to make submissions should note that AEST is approximately 16 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time. Accordingly, to comfortably meet the Australian deadline, a submission by the close of business on February 13 in the U.S. is advisable.

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Jim Wilson, Australia Correspondent

Sydney-based journalist and photojournalist, Jim Wilson, is the Australia Correspondent for FreightWaves. Since beginning his journalism career in 2000, Jim has primarily worked as a business reporter, editor, and manager for maritime publications in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. He has won several awards for logistics-related journalism and has had photography published in the global maritime press. Jim has also run publications focused on human resources management, workplace health and safety, venture capital, and law. He holds a degree in law and legal practice.