Angela Meiklejohn knows only too well the impact of just one glance away from the road.
Her 81-year-old mother, Audrey Dow, was just a few streets from her home in the Queensland city of Mackay when another vehicle slammed head-on into her car.
“Mum took the brunt of the impact. She had massive internal injuries,” Ms Meiklejohn told 7.30.
Her mother died in hospital later that night.
“She was a lovely lady, loving grandmother of six and very sprightly and had a zest for life,” Ms Meiklejohn said.
The family’s pain was only made worse when they discovered that the other driver had been using his phone at the time of the accident.
“Devastating. It’s the worst thing ever. If people could just realise how dangerous it is and what the results could be,” Ms Meiklejohn said.
Police say that along with the dangers of drink-driving and fatigue, driver distraction is a big contributor to accidents.
Most driver distraction relates to technology, but it can include anything from texting to adjusting the radio or simply interacting with other passengers.
Last financial year, NSW Police fined 39,000 people for using their phones while driving, 2,000 more than the previous year.
“Our highway patrol officers are seeing people on two phones, people with big iPads, video display devices watching movies,” Chief Inspector Phil Brooks said.
“Those drivers are presenting a risk to themselves when they are distracted, whether it’s using the phone, having something to eat, putting on make-up.”
Distraction a factor in two thirds of crashes
Official records suggest driver distraction accounts for at least 10 per cent of fatal accidents, and 18 per cent of accidents involving serious injury.
Research in Australia is limited, but a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in the United States has looked at the increased risk posed by different activities.
The study found that the risk of an accident increased by:
- Five times when using in-vehicle devices or reaching for a phone
- Six times when texting
- Nine times when reaching for something other than a phone
- 10 times when reading
- 12 times when dialling a hand-held phone
Road safety researcher Professor Michael Regan, from the Australian Road Research Board, said the real numbers in Australia are much higher than official figures indicate.
“It’s an underestimate, because when you look at studies where drivers are observed for weeks or months or even years, like they have in the US recently, they found that 68 per cent of the crashes had distraction as a contributing factor,” he told said.
Touch screen displays a problem
Psychologist and safety researcher Dr Bridie Scott-Parker from the University of the Sunshine Coast is passionate about educating young drivers about driver distraction, especially given their connection to their mobile phones.
“We know young drivers have grown up in a generation with a mobile phone as a normal part of their day,” she told 7.30.
“Teenagers are cued to look at their phone if they hear a text come through, or there is a phone call or a missed call.
“Education for new drivers, our youngest drivers, needs to understand that until now mobile phones have been with them everywhere, all the time. We need to explain how dangerous it is to have access to a mobile phone while you are driving.”
Professor Regan says modern in-car technology can contribute to the problem.
“The trouble with these touch screen displays is, firstly, they’re not well located, they might be too far away, and once you start interacting with them sometimes you have to go two or three layers deep into a menu to find what you want,” he said.
He’s calling for a star rating, where vehicles are rated on how distracting their screen displays are.
“It would be better, if you want to turn on the air conditioner or find the nearest restaurant, if you could use your voice — and that technology exists — and keep your eyes on the road,” he said.
Chief Inspector Brooks says police will continue to enforce the law, but each individual has a role to play in safety.
“Personal responsibility is the over-arching element for road safety,” he said.
“Whilst the police are there every day looking and prosecuting offenders, writing tickets, it is personal responsibility that can make the difference.”
For Professor Scott-Parker, the answer is simple.
“Turn your phone off,” he said.