Does NZ need bigger fines for drivers caught on their phone?

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Words: Matthew Hansen
26 Jan 2021

Distracted driving was a factor in 133 local serious crashes in 2019, 10 of which were fatal. While it pales in comparison to equivalent numbers for crashes caused by speed, distracted driving appears to be on the rise. And one reason for this is mobile phone usage.

While phone-related crashes were down in 2020 (perhaps in part thanks to lockdown restrictions), overall trends show that crashes caused by drivers distracted by phones are on the rise.

According to the Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, 253 crashes where phones were a factor were recorded in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The number boomed to 310 crashes in 2018, with 271 recorded in 2019. That adds up to 1087 crashes where phones were a factor across just four years — 13 of these crashes were fatal and 50 were deemed to be serious.

This aligns with a considerable increase in the amount of tickets issued by the New Zealand Police. In 2010 just 8232 tickets for phone use were written nationwide. By 2016 that number had ballooned to 28,901.

With trends on the up, and phones becoming a more embedded part of the modern driving experience, it begs the question of whether current domestic rules and penalties around phone use are working.

As it stands, in New Zealand drivers face an $80 fine and 20 demerit points (one fifth of your allowed demerits before losing your license). Drivers incur a similar fine and demerit point loss for traveling 11–15km/h over the speed limit, while an occupant not wearing their seat belt incurs a $150 fine. Even in isolation the bottom line seems limp wristed, and comparing it to the pricing model in other countries only magnifies how mild local fines are.

Often considered one of the harshest countries in the world for ticketing, Australia’s phone use fine varies from state to state. The most minor fine is the AU$250 ($267) ticket and 3 demerits (standard full license drivers only have 13 to play with). The most major fines are handed out in Victoria, where drivers get slapped with an AU$484 ($518) fine and 4 demerits.

The UK’s rules on phone usage are among the most simple. If caught calling, texting, or using your phone’s apps in any manner, UK plod will hand you a cool £200 ($380) and six demerit points — a whopping 50 per cent of each driver’s allocated amount before loss of license.

America ranks as one of the most varied countries for texting and driving charges. Some states like Kentucky and Alabama only charge US$30 ($41) for being caught on your phone. On the other hand, if cops in Utah spot a phone, drivers receive a US$750 ($1042) fine — creating one hell of a gulf.

So, do Australia and the UK’s hard line on phones work? While Australian statistics are difficult to come by, in the UK things appear to be stable. Serious accidents where phone distraction was a factor have dropped from 105 in 2016 to 90 the following year, although fatalities over the same period went up slightly (from 32 to 33). Statista reports that 113 serious accidents occurred in 2019, with 17 fatalities.

This is more than what’s recorded in New Zealand, but not by much at all given the UK’s huge 66.6 million population relative to our miniscule 5.0 million. This, perhaps combined with the noted difference in attitude towards driving often displayed by those in Europe compared to at home, could be seen as evidence of tougher rulings making a difference.

Larger fines is an option worth considering, with some safety advocates also raising the more extreme idea of confiscating the phones of offenders. The latter remains unproven, however, with no other countries having adopted similar rules as of yet. Still, the government’s ‘Road to Zero’ transport safety strategy and it’s ambitious goal of ridding the country of all road deaths should mean nothing is ruled out.

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