Texting And Driving: News Limited Picks Up The Cause

FOLLOWING our article at the beginning of the month on the dangers of using mobile phones to send and receive text messages whilst driving, the Murdoch press across the country is this weekend taking up the campaign to rid our roads of this scourge with the potential to needlessly kill.

Back on the first of June, I posted an article about idiot drivers on our roads who pay more attention to their mobile telephones than they do to the road; God forbid they actually concentrate on their driving.

Today — refreshingly — the same issue is being pursued by the Murdoch press across Australia, and it is to be hoped that their campaign makes some impact.

Readers can access the version published in Melbourne’s Herald Sun here if they are yet to see the pieces in question.

It’s a problem that just seems to be spiralling out of control; in the four weeks since I published the earlier article on the perils of texting and driving, it seems that everywhere you look now, when on the road, there are people engaging in this insidious habit.

Indeed, just this morning I was given “the finger” by a driver ahead of me who remained stationary at an intersection, typing a text message, after traffic signals had turned green; I gave him a toot of the horn — and he in turn proceeded to drive and continue texting, narrowly missing a row of parked cars as he swerved all over the road in Melbourne’s affluent inner eastern suburbs.

There are some — there are always some, whose excrement-filled brains are impervious to common sense and sanity — who will dismiss all of this as some kind of finger-wagging wowserism.

The reality is that it is no joke, nor something to be dismissed at will; those who engage in this practice are a menace to themselves, and to other road users, and the sooner they are either stopped from doing it or removed from the road permanently, the better.

Clearly, with others picking up the cudgels on this issue, I wanted to reinforce it through this column.

I encourage all readers to heed the message, and — if you know people who do this, on the “it can’t happen to me” principle — to find some way of getting through them.

It will be far preferable to see them alive and inconvenienced, for whatever period of delay is required before they can get off the road and take or send the messages they are currently tapping away at when they are supposed to be driving, than it will be to attend their funerals.

Or those of the people they end up killing.

And if they have so little regard for the safety and welfare of other road users — if not for themselves — then firmer measures are well and truly justified to try to stop them.


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?

Historic Loss At Qantas: Bad Result, Bad News, Bad Bums

QANTAS this morning posted a nett full-year loss of $245 million; its first loss since it was privatised in 1995, and its largest loss ever. This is a bad result that heralds further bad news at the Flying Kangaroo, and reflects on the federal government, Qantas management, and its unions alike.

The thing striking about this result, no pun intended, is that nobody is particularly surprised; Qantas management has been softening the market up for a result like this since well before last year’s industrial machinations. Indeed, the result is actually better than most forecasters and analysts had predicted.

Yet let there be no doubt: this is a bad result, irrespective of what profit the Qantas domestic business and the frequent flyer program contributed.

Not only have losses in the international division blown out from $2oo million a year ago to almost half a billion dollars today, but one-off costs of $194 million attributed to  industrial action and grounding the fleet in October, if removed, still see the airline’s full-year figures some $60 million in the red.

The figures include $400 million of one-off restructuring costs, but it remains to be seen how much of this figure is recouped against the Qantas Group’s bottom line over the next year in the face of a fuel bill sitting at a record high ($4.4 billion), industry rumours of a failure to fully hedge against rising fuel costs, inefficient structural wage costs, the ongoing need to retain ageing and increasingly ancient components of its fleet, and rampant and increasing competition.

There are many parties to blame for what, to use the vernacular, is an absolute shocker; and — in turn — a thickening band of ominous black clouds on the horizon of the Qantas sky.

Union leaders — with Transport Workers Union national secretary Tony Sheldon blaming the loss on “disastrous management” — have been quick to hit out at Qantas management, with Mr Sheldon saying “It’s devastating…at the hands of very poor management decisions that we have seen over the last two years.”

Australian and International Pilots Association president Captain Barry Jackson spoke of an “unnecessarily militant approach” to industrial relations on the part of Qantas management during last year’s industrial turmoil which he says “continued to do damage to the Qantas brand.”

I was quick to support Qantas management over the unions last year, and I stand by that judgement; not least in view of the ridiculous wage claims the TWU and other unions were determined to pursue against the company.

At the very minimum, those unions collectively wear egg on their faces today: the hard figures of the Qantas annual result prove that its management was not bluffing when it said the pay claims of the unions were unaffordable and, if realised, could send the airline broke.

The cost to Qantas of the dispute — $194 million, on its own figures — is far less than the residual increase to its wage bill would have been if the union pay claims were achieved. Nonetheless, even in putting down the industrial action taken by its unions, it’s clear Qantas is in no position to be doling out wage rises to any component of its workforce.

This brings me to the big pay rise the Qantas board approved for CEO Alan Joyce at the height of last year’s industrial action; at the time, I said it was not a good look, not smart timing, and damned silly tactically.

As fate would have it, these were prophetic words, in light of the fact Joyce has just presided over the biggest loss in the airline’s history. Perhaps — and I say this wryly — it’s a good thing he recently declined to accept his annual bonus.

What many of us suspected 12 months ago, as Joyce was announcing the restructure that would “build the new Qantas” and trigger unprecedented industrial strife — that the airline was in poor shape — emerged with crystal clarity from this morning’s figures.

Exactly what happens from here is, to some extent, anyone’s guess.

This column gave its support to the company over the unions at the time of the dispute last year, and that support remains behind Qantas, Joyce and his management. However, in light of the annual result posted today, that support now comes with a couple of hefty qualifications.

The first is that Joyce has been talking of restructures and painful adjustments for the better part of two years now; having booked $400 million in abnormals attributed to restructuring it is, quite literally, time for a return on those monies to be achieved.

Should Qantas report a similar result in another year from now, serious questions will be asked of Joyce, and his tenure — rightly — will be called into question and reviewed.

Joyce has made too much noise for too long now about “fixing” Qantas: he is entitled to the time for the results of his changes to become evident, but there won’t — and shouldn’t — be any extra chances if he fails.

The second qualification I place on my support of airline management speaks to two dreadful decisions it has taken since the end of the industrial dispute; specifically, in terms of fleet management and brand strategy.

Why — why — Qantas has seen fit, in the wake of the events of the past nine months, to completely trash its entire brand strategy is unfathomable; the long-running “I Still Call Australia Home” campaign is more critically important to the airline now than at any other time, with its underlying themes of familiarity, continuity and stability.

Switching to an obscure strategy based on a focus group-driven faux pas (“We Fly For You,” backed by an odd instrumental composition by Daniel Johns that amounts to nothing to most consumers) is a ridiculous and almost suicidal step to take, given the turmoil and upheaval the airline has faced in recent times.

At a time of falling yields, rocketing costs, rampant competition and diminishing consumer confidence, continuity and a “business as usual” approach are precisely what should be emphasised — not a complete change of direction when the airline faces enough uncertainty as it is.

Management decisions, as much as financial outcomes, are going to be scrutinised more rigorously by commentators and industry analysts alike over the coming year.

The decision by Joyce to defer another order for new aircraft — this time, for 85 new Boeing 787s — is of more concern than the changes in brand management and marketing strategy.

Whilst it is true that some of Qantas’ oldest planes have been retired in the past couple of years, the airline nonetheless retains a sizeable number of aircraft at or very close to the point at which they really should be replaced on the grounds of reliability, fuel efficiency and cost effectiveness to operate.

The Qantas mainline fleet — that is, excluding Jetstar — retains 10 Boeing 747-400s that are 20 years or more old; these include four (VH-OJA, VH-OJC, VH-OJD and VH-OJE) that are 23 years old, and one — VH-OJH — which is the 22-year-old jumbo that skidded off a runway in Bangkok whilst landing during a severe storm in 1999 that was repaired and returned to service.

8 of the 12 Boeing 737-400s it retains are 20 years or more old, with four of them 22 years old.

And 14 of its 22 Boeing 767-300ERs at or above the 20 year mark, including seven purchased second-hand from British Airways in the 1990s. Of the 14, eight of them entered service in 1990.

With the delay of further Airbus A380 deliveries until at least 2014, and the deferral of new Boeing 787 aircraft until at least 2016, it is unclear as to when these ancient aircraft — which comprise almost a quarter of the Qantas mainline fleet — will be retired.

And this, in turn, will inevitably raise questions of safety, and compound the heightened cost imposts these old machines make to the bottom line with delays and other scheduling mishaps on account of the increased rate of technical issues these aircraft face.

It doesn’t help that Qantas made the wrong aircraft selections when it addressed the issue of fleet renewal in 2002, and that the 747 fleet could have been replaced by brand new Boeing 777-300ERs and 777-200LRs five years ago.

There is at least the silver lining of sorts that these old aircraft will keep more aircraft engineers in their jobs for longer when they might otherwise have been restructured out of the Qantas business.

I would very quickly like to make further mention of Qantas’ unions; it is clear that they do not accept the outcome imposed on them late last year by Fair Work Australia; today’s outbursts by Sheldon, Jackson and others are evidence that discontent lingers very close to the surface.

But the unions have abided by the FWA decision, having opted not to pursue prohibited industrial actions, and — at the very least — should be commended for that.

Finally, the federal government must accept some portion of the blame for the state Qantas is in.

It (or its QANGOs, which is the same thing) has allowed an ever-increasing number of foreign airlines open access to Australian airports to carry international traffic; it is one thing to encourage and foster competition, but another altogether to allow capacity to be dumped into the Australian market at the direct expense of the Australian national carrier.

I just think that granting exponentially increasing numbers of landing slots to middle-eastern, state-run airlines probably isn’t the best way to preserve a local aviation industry in this country.

And it is probably time to review the foreign ownership provisions of the Qantas Sale Act; possibly allowing higher levels of overseas investment to allow the airline to raise capital, balanced by rigorous and far tighter restrictions on the concentration of foreign ownership as opposed to the total level allowable under law.

Still, it’s clear that it has taken a long time to produce today’s result; many parties have had a hand in it, and the end product — the largest full-year loss in Qantas’ history — is abysmal.

The bottom line, however, is that Qantas is a mess.

What happens now, and what Alan Joyce and his management do to remedy the situation, will attract critical scrutiny of a kind seldom seen in corporate governance circles in Australia.

Public Transport in Brisbane…Grrr…

I’m in Brisbane on a short visit at present and I can’t let my experiences on the suburban trains today go unheralded.

The first thing of note was the sign at Central, saying return train fares are no longer sold – fair enough, I thought, but one could always buy a return ticket when I lived here.

Next came the shock – the sheer usury of the ticket prices. I took two trips today – one to Indooroopilly and one to Toowong, both from Central (for the uninitiated, six stops and four stops respectively). The first ultimately cost $9.20 return (after buying a ticket back at the other end); the other $7.80.

And we complain about fares in Melbourne! We have a bargain basement regime weighed against this.

Taking the escalator from the concourse at Central to the platform, I was struck by how grimy, dingy and neglected the whole place looked. OK, so it’s a train station and a public place, but it made Flinders Street, in its notorious state of disrepair, look like a palace by comparison.

Toowong station was even worse, and looked like it hadn’t had a cent spent on its maintenance since I last took a train from there ten years ago.

But back to Central. As the first train went by whilst I waited for my train to Indooroopilly, I noticed a grotesquely crass piece of spin that made anything from our recently-departed Bracks/Brumby government pale by comparison: the carriages were emblazoned “No. 12 of 64 new trains for SEQ,” replete with Queensland Government logo. How nauseating.

Once aboard the newish train that arrived to take me to Indooroopilly, I saw the filth, the ripped velour on the seats, the carpet on the floor of the carriage that was worn through and which had had an appalling attempt at a patch job done on it with ducting tape and what appeared to be Nikko pen to try to match the background colour.

The other three train trips were on equally or more neglected trains; in total all four carriages I travelled on had faulty doors that had been locked and sealed with tape.

And does Queensland Rail pay cleaners? The amount of half-eaten food liberally strewn around the trains, food wrappers, old newspapers and – in one case – what looked like a piece of “utilised” toilet paper, was a disgrace.

Indeed, on the train from Toowong tonight on the way back to my hotel, one fellow passenger noted aloud that the carriage smelt “like spew.” Quite.

Add in the surly attitude I was given by the station staff at Central, the disrepair evident in stations I passed along the way, and even the noxious “Doors closing, please stand clear” recording I’d happily long forgotten ever existed until today, and I can see that travelling by train in Brisbane must incense the unfortunate inhabitants forced to endure it.

I thought the standards on the Melbourne metropolitan train network had fallen far during the eleven years of Labor government in Victoria. The standards would need to fall far further to reach the level of those in Brisbane.

Yes, I took two shortish trips on one of seven suburban train lines: how representative is that? My answer is what is routinely thrown at me by friends who still live in Brisbane and don’t like what they find on visits to Melbourne.

And that is simply that as a visitor in Brisbane, my impressions count, as do those of any visitor. That public interfaces like its trains are opportunities to sell a destination or tarnish perceptions of it. And they are a reflection on those who provide services, in this case the Queensland state government.

Public transport is a modern hot-button issue electorally on so many levels. I left Brisbane at about the time Peter Beattie was becoming Premier of Queensland and would be lucky to have spent a month in total in Queensland in the 13 or 14 years since I headed south.

All I can say is that if the Beattie/Bligh government has applied itself as assiduously and as competently to other aspects of its jurisdiction as it apparently has to Brisbane’s trains, then it is small wonder Queenslanders have been looking for a reason to throw it from office – a reason that the conservatives, for so long until very recently, have been unable or unwilling to provide.

An old mate today asked me what I thought would happen at the looming Queensland state election in light of Anna Bligh’s flood boost and the unorthodox arrangements being undertaken by the LNP.

I said that I thought Campbell Newman would win in a canter in Queensland. The swing in Ashgrove will be nearly double that required to take the seat, and whilst I don’t go along with current polls predicting the ALP being left with as few as 10 of 89 seats, I think a nett loss of some 25 to 30 seats is what the ALP can look forward to in the none-too-distant future.

Based on what I’ve seen today, it’s no wonder the natives are angry. And waiting on their balconies with the baseball bats.