Texting drivers: a cyclist's worst fear

All right. This is a cycling blog, and I know that for some people, the moment they see that word, they think "this doesn't matter to me because I'm not a cyclist", or worse, start exhibiting curious and unhelpful prejudices.

So let's try find a statement that I sincerely hope everyone will agree with, and work from there. Here goes:

A person who is in control of a vehicle on a public road should not be operating a handheld electronic device. At all. Ever.

Because, by my observation, the use of mobile phones on our roads is out of control. And it scares me.

It scares me when I'm driving a car. As I brake for a red light, as I slow for a knot of congestion on a freeway, I glance nervously in the rear-view mirrors, wondering if some idiot behind me, texting away, is going to plough into my vehicle, leaving me with anything from an annoying insurance claim to a debilitating neck injury … or worse.

It scares me more when I ride my motor scooter. Last week, in stop-start traffic in a tunnel, I noticed the bloke in a 4WD behind me was peering into a handheld device. He would leave a gap, then surge up to close it. Would he accidentally squash me against the vehicle in front? Knock me off my scooter and run over me?

It also scares me when I'm on foot. It's always been a good idea to ensure a car is slowing for a pedestrian crossing – now it's imperative. And when I read about vehicles running off the road and into bus shelters or shopfronts, it makes me wonder.

A matter of trust

But the phone foolishness scares me most when I ride my bike. It's the combination of vulnerability and speed differential. I ride carefully, I signal, I stay attuned to what's behind me – but ultimately, a cyclist relies on drivers not to hit them.

If the driver doesn't notice you because they're distracted, if they somehow think their latest text, tweet, post or email is more important than focusing on the road – it could be your life.

And the high vantage point of a bicycle lets you see how many people are risking your life. As I roll past a line of cars stopped in traffic, I often see an alarming number of phones being tapped, or cradled illegally in laps. It's bizarre that the desire to socialise electronically results in such anti-social behaviour.

So how much are mobile phones to blame for accidents on our roads? Last week, Marg Prendergast of the Centre for Road Safety told Fairfax Media that "we know that it is becoming more prevalent in lower-order crashes".

Nevertheless, "actual crash numbers are under-reported due to the difficulty of obtaining evidence at crash scenes," she told me this week. After all, who is going to freely admit they were using the phone when they crashed?

And in NSW, the police find it difficult to check a road user's mobile phone after a crash, due in part, it seems, to privacy concerns. How's that for victims' rights?

I also wonder whether many people are just ignorant. Rule 300 has been significantly amended in recent years  – and it's likely that many road users aren't up to speed.

Sure, some of those legalities are complicated – but when in doubt, just don't do it. And yes, you're not allowed to use a phone while riding a bicycle – or a horse, for that matter.

Clueless

But for me, the basic rule that people are most clueless about is that it is illegal to text while "stationary, but not parked" – for example, at traffic lights.

"But how can it hurt anyone? I'm not driving!" you might say. But we all know what might happen.

You won't finish the text in time, and will head into the intersection – a collision danger zone - while still tapping away.

Or, you'll send a quick text: "I'll be home for dinner". Then, when you're travelling at speed, you'll receive a reply. You sneak a quick look at the phone (how harmless is that, you ask yourself).

"What time will you get here?" it asks. Well, how harmless is it to just hit the number 7 and press "send"? Damn QWERTY keyboard, that shift button is so tiny …

SMASH.

So what is it going to take to make people get their hands off it? It's hard to know.

Education and road safety awareness programs, yes.

Enforcement, absolutely. I sometimes dream of the police being given small hammers to smash the screen of any device they see being used. I reckon that would clear the situation up in a week – but it's an unlikely measure.

The shame game

I think the best hope is to make it socially unacceptable. There was a time when people would boast about "getting away" with drink driving. The attitude has changed. A colleague who lost his licence due to an ill-advised extra glass kept it very quiet. He was ashamed.

Several studies have shown that driving while texting can be as dangerous as driving while drunk. Sure, you "sober up" the moment you put the phone down, but that doesn't make it justifiable.

We all know what to do, or rather, what not to do. If you text and drive, you're a bloody idiot. Tell yourself that, if you need to, and tell your friends and family, too. Because we shouldn't have to be needlessly scared on the road.

Are you also concerned about mobile phone use on our roads? What can be done to improve compliance with the law?

To encourage constructive debate, this blog will be carefully moderated; please stay on topic.

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