A male motorist on the Bruce Highway rolls a cigarette while driving at 110kmh on cruise control, with his feet on the dashboard and steering wheel between his ankles. When stopped by police, the driver tells officers he sees no problem because his hand is close to the handbrake if needed.
Another incident, this time on Nambour Connection Road, involves a motorist playing a hand-held Playstation Portable while driving. And yet another: the driver watches an episode of Friends on a mobile phone on the dashboard, while heading along Maroochydore Road in a 90kmh zone.
These are actual, extreme incidents. But on any given day on Sunshine Coast roads, any one of us could be ‘guilty’ of distracted driving, an accessory to a driver’s momentary lack of concentration or, worse still, a victim of the consequences.
You can spot a distracted driver a mile away. They’re the ones whose car drifts all over the lane or veers slowly to the left as they fuss with an object in the front passenger seat. They’re the ones who fail to move off on the green light, ‘beeped’ by frustrated motorists behind them.
They’re the ones in the right lane, moving much slower than the speed limit.
They’re the ones reaching down, over or behind to pick something up while the vehicle is in motion. They’re the ones who ‘zone out’ – thinking about something, someone or somewhere else – and don’t see that the car in front has stopped.
They’re all doing anything but the single most-important thing they should be doing behind the steering wheel of a potentially deadly weapon: focusing on driving.
Queensland Road Safety Week runs from August 21-25 this year. Sunshine Coast Superintendent and District Officer Craig Hawkins says that as well as being a huge part of the week’s activities, driver education is an ongoing focus, and road safety is “a message that should never be lost”.
The Sunshine Coast Police District road toll stands at 10 deaths from eight crashes. Four of those deaths were motorcyclists. Supt Hawkins says July rocked emergency services personnel to the core, with the three-vehicle, triple fatality on July 21 on the Bruce Highway at Federal, south of Gympie, for which a Yandina man has been charged with three counts of murder. That was followed on July 25 by a Palmwoods motorcycle crash that claimed the life of a 39-year-old Parrearra man.
This year’s Queensland Road Safety Week theme: ‘Road safety starts with me’ highlights the fact that everyone has a role in keeping our roads safe. One of the easiest places to start is by minimising driver distraction – one of the Fatal Five major causes of death on our roads, identified through research by the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety – Queensland.
Any movement, activity or stray thought can be responsible for taking the driver’s attention away from the road and compromising the safety of themselves, passengers, pedestrians, and other motorists. But because driving is second nature to most of us, we push the boundaries, try to multi-task or make up for lost time, and allow minor diversions such as social media to take control.
So, we read or send that text message on our phone, take another bite out of that burger, return the takeaway coffee cup back to the console holder, apply makeup for the job interview, fiddle with the dials on the car radio, continue that argument with our ex-partner over Bluetooth, or engage in ‘rubbernecking’ to see why that car has pulled off the road. We forget that we are responsible for a powerful machine that can cause injury, death, and destruction with one false move, one distracted blink of an eye. And a moment is all it takes for our world to come crashing down.
Supt Hawkins says that “without a doubt”, Queensland drivers are becoming more distracted.
“The mobile phones have a huge impact on that and that’s why the fines are so large,” he says.
“In the absence of a mobile phone, people would be far more attentive and that’s why we encourage them to put their mobile phones away while they are driving. Clearly that has an impact on traffic crashes and fatalities. While we talk often about traffic fatalities, crashes in themselves can be life changing. I don’t think anyone wants to have a traffic crash or all the inconvenience that comes with that, but you don’t want to see lives change, more than anything. And if people can avoid that, why wouldn’t they by simply putting their phones away and abiding by the road rules?
“For the sake of 10 or 15 minutes for the journey around town, the consequences are far worse than just being in that moment.”
Acting Senior Sergeant Road Policing Unit North Coast Region David Nelson spends much of his official duties travelling throughout the region on an unmarked police motorbike. He and his colleagues have observed some appalling driving behaviour over the years – much of it equating to distracted driving.
Luckily, they have been able to prevent untold road trauma by pulling over motorists, pointing out better driving behaviour, educating them on road rules and taking disciplinary action where necessary. Watching TV reruns while driving may be among the worst cases encountered but Snr Sgt Nelson knows calling, texting, searching websites and using apps on mobile phones while driving create serious problems on our roads.
“People have grown up with mobiles and they seem to be just an extension of their body,” he says.
“This is why people think it is okay to use them when driving. The problem is that when you use a mobile phone, you lose 95 per cent of your concentration on your driving task. When using a phone when driving, your brain focuses on that, then back to driving, then back to the phone, then back to driving. What if something happens when you are in the phone phase?”
From July 1 in Queensland, the penalty for illegal phone use while driving increased to a $1161 fine and the loss of four points.
Yet, Snr Sgt Nelson still regularly spots drivers reading or texting away.
“Even by having the phone resting on you, you are committing an offence,” he says. “When we pull over some drivers, we get the old ‘it’s just revenue-raising’ response. But if you don’t commit an offence, you won’t get a fine.
“All we want to do is stop people from dying on the roads. Yes, it does start with the simple offences. Issuing a fine for what the driver thinks is a minor offence normally stops them committing a major offence because it starts them thinking about what they are doing.”
The Australian Automobile Association has made distracted driving a priority for its Road Safety Research Program.
“Research has shown that in Australia, distraction is the main contributing factor in approximately 16 per cent of serious casualty road crashes and also suggests that distracted driving is as dangerous if not more dangerous than drink driving,” its website says. “Distraction causes increased reaction time (including braking), impairs a driver’s ability to maintain speed and lane position, and impacts the operational efficiency of traffic, bringing with it the potential to seriously and negatively impact a broad range of road users.”
AAA’s three major research projects in this field include one at the University of Sunshine Coast, led by Professor Paul Salmon, developing a toolkit to help prevent distraction. The toolkit is currently in the design phase.
“The project is based on the idea that there is a shared responsibility for driver distraction that goes beyond drivers and spans all stakeholders who have an influence on road transport,” Prof Salmon says. “Social media companies, employers, mobile phone designers, vehicle designers, driver educators, family, and friends etc can all have an influence on drivers’ willingness to engage in distracting activities. When distraction-related crashes occur, we see this as a failure of the road transport system, not as a failure of drivers alone.”
Prof Salmon says the toolkit will have a very broad set of users.
“It could be used by employers to help assess the technologies that they add to their work vehicles, a road safety authority to access the latest thinking in how to prevent driver distraction, or a mobile phone designer to access guidance on how to minimise distraction through design.
“By assisting a diverse set of stakeholders, we hope that the toolkit will lead to a reduction of distraction-related trauma in Australia.”
Tips to avoid driver distractions
- Activate ‘Do not disturb while driving’ for Apple phones or ‘Do not disturb’ for Android phones before you get into the car.
- Set your GPS or playlist before leaving home (Open and P2 licence holders only).
- Remind your passengers that you need to focus on the road. Make sure kids and pets are safely restrained.
- If you really need to make a call or send a message, pull over and park safely first.
Did you know?
- It is illegal to hold your phone in your hand or have it resting on any part of your body, such as your lap, while driving or riding. This applies even when you’re stopped in traffic or at traffic lights.
- The phone doesn’t need to be turned on or in use for it to be an offence.
- 69 per cent of Queensland drivers admit to using a mobile phone illegally on 10 per cent or more of trips.
- There are now enforcement cameras which can detect illegal mobile phone use in vehicles.
- The penalty for illegal phone use while driving is a $1161 fine and 4 points.
- If you use your phone illegally while driving, you’re just as dangerous as a drink driver.
- Recent research by Compare The Market found that of a total of 250 Australian drivers surveyed, 79 per cent had been involved in a collision involving distracted driving.
- Of those, 18 per cent stated the distracted driving by themselves or on the part of other drivers led to an accident with notable injuries.
- The research found weather conditions distracted Australian drivers the most (42 per cent).
- After the weather came the distractions of dealing with children or pets (35 per cent), having other passengers in the car (30 per cent), and eating or drinking while driving (26 per cent).
- This was followed by an outside object, person or event at 23 per cent.
- And think again if you believe technology will keep you safe. Australians believe smart technology actually contributes to distracted driving, the survey reveals.
- A total of 23 per cent of respondents admitted their attention has been hindered by technology systems such as Satnav, reverse cameras and sensors while driving.