State Issues: Cars And SMS Texting Do Not Mix

TWO YEARS AGO — when this site was in its infancy — I posted an article talking about road management and traffic enforcement. At the time I pointed out that the issues are political, and that politicians can fix them, and there’s an issue from that early piece that needs to be revisited.

It’s easy to forget that as often as we talk about elections and leadership, debts and deficits, and scandals and strategic brilliance, that at the other end of the same pool of subjects are the frontline issues that these things directly affect: health, education and so forth.

I wanted to post on just such an issue that is the preserve of state governments because I think the time is past due that something is done about it — namely, the insidious and downright dangerous practice of people driving around punching out text messages.

That early old post, by the way, can be accessed here, but one scenario I outlined in it — which was a direct record of something that happened the day I wrote it — said

The green car is moving slowly; it stops five car lengths short of the barrier line, and in three hops, closes that gap out. When the car stops, I notice that the reflection of the young girl driving it, from her rear vision mirror, shows her looking at her crotch. The traffic lights turn green; after a delay of a few seconds, the green car starts moving, but something is still wrong: the car, so ever slightly, is swerving in and out of its lane. When safe, I change lanes and flatten it to get past the little green car…and as I pass and shoot a look at the driver, it’s clear she is sending an SMS text message on her mobile phone.

There is a new kind of filth in the drivers’ seats of cars across this country; misguidedly immortal in their outlook and possessed of a complete and cavalier disregard for the safety of every driver on the road — themselves included — they spend their driving time reading text messages, tapping away at their phones, and embodying what I think is the #1 public menace in daily life right now.

My purpose in raising this is because readers will (naturally) fall into one of two camps: those that do tour around the streets and highways using their phones to send messages, and those who would never do such a thing; I will be interested in the comments that come back from this.

I think the focus of Police on speed and alcohol is entirely appropriate and, indeed, effective; but an integrated road safety campaign requires a much broader focus, and with the considerable amount of time I spend on the road I am in no way convinced mobile phone use gets the attention it deserves.

Mind you, I’m not talking about people who talk on their phones; there’s a distinction, especially when it’s on a hands-free unit of some description, and therefore legal.

I am talking about people who (in no particular order) speed up, slow down, drift from side to side and in and out of their lanes…with the attendant risk of really doing some damage.

Or killing people.

Ten years ago — in a case that attracted national attention — a driver in Geelong avoided jail after killing a cyclist, Anthony John Marsh, whilst sending a text message when driving; the dead cyclist’s parents indicated they did not wish to see the woman, Sylvia Ciach imprisoned after she agreed to plead guilty to culpable driving causing death.

I remember the case at the time and thought how extraordinarily generous the dead man’s parents had been in telling the judge they didn’t want the convicted miscreant jailed because to do so would ruin a second life after their son’s.

But should it really have to come to that?

If anything, the problem is far worse ten years on. I’ll share a couple of personal examples.

Just prior to Christmas last year I was travelling in my car with my then-pregnant wife and three year old daughter, when we were rear-ended at a stop light by a 30-year-old in a ute at approximately 45 kilometres per hour; the guy made a weak excuse that “his brakes stopped working” but didn’t make any attempt to hide the fact his phone was in his hand.

I worked with a young girl a couple of years ago who thought it hilarious that I appeared in our office one morning, angry, after having just about been cleaned up by someone sending a text message. “Everyone does it!” she told me. “No,” I retorted, “only shitheads do it,” which apparently made me the shithead because I didn’t send messages when I was in the car too. She was 22 at the time: even by that age, the habit was ingrained.

And it isn’t just P-platers and young drivers who do it: men, women, old, young…they’re all at it. Just yesterday we had a near miss with someone who looked as if she was over 60, you guessed it: phone in hand, sending a text, and almost causing road carnage.

Something has to be done to stamp this mentality out.

On a typical day I would see dozens of people tap-tap-tapping away, not watching what they’re supposed to be doing; it is just so dangerous, and on a given day I estimate I’d have half a dozen near misses with people whose lack of attention almost causes accidents.

The odd thing is if you toot a horn at them, or have a word with them if you get to stop next to them, they are the most abusive and vitriolic individuals imaginable; it’s not their fault they almost killed you…of course it isn’t.

Most, if not all, of my readers can probably relate similar stories.

I think sending text messages is even more dangerous than drink driving; if you’ve had a few too many and you’re stupid enough to get behind the wheel, the chances are that you will at least be looking through the windscreen (even if you’re too impaired to react properly).

If you’re sending an SMS, you’re not even looking — or if you are, the chances of hitting something whilst peering furtively into your crotch (where they all seem to “hide” the phone) are very good: a car travelling at just 60kph covers nearly 17 metres every second — and that’s enough distance for something unexpected to happen.

I think it’s time law enforcement officers — the Police — got serious about removing these people from the road; if you’re prosecuted for texting whilst driving, a mandatory two-year suspension of licence plus a $1,500 fine should suffice in getting the message across.

As it stands, if you’re caught by the Police (and assuming you’re lucky enough not to have caused an accident or killed someone), a fine of a few hundred dollars and three points off your licence will see you on your way, free to do the same thing again, until you either run through all of your points or you’re jailed.

We get drunks off the road; in many ways, the scum who can’t control their urge to send SMS text messages are more dangerous, and should be treated accordingly.

What do you think? And if you agree, how can this be made a higher priority for those who make policy governing road use and enforcement?