Fatal distraction: New tool to help drivers break mobile phone habit

Moving Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 20 August 2020

Struggling to park your phone while driving? New research shows you're not alone.

Almost half of young drivers and a third of older drivers admit using a hand-held mobile phone while driving in a typical week, according to new research.

The research, commissioned by the Australian Automobile Association on behalf of RACV and other state motoring clubs, found that about half of those who admit to using their phone while driving, regardless of age, say they use it to call, message or text in moving traffic.

But mobile phone distraction is not limited to making calls. About three-quarters of those aged 25 and under who admitted to using their phone while driving, say they use it for music, entertainment, GPS and other apps in moving traffic, while 41 per cent of drivers over 25 use these apps when driving.

Person using mobile phone while driving

Three in five older drivers admit to using a hand-held mobile phone while driving.

At the traffic lights or in stop-start traffic, about three-quarters of all drivers use their mobile phone to call, text or message.

RACV senior policy adviser for road safety, Elvira Lazar, says the research highlights that mobile phone use is not just an issue for young drivers.

She says, for example, a third of drivers aged over 25 use social media on their phones at traffic lights or in stop-start traffic, compared with 24 per cent of drivers 25 and under.

This is despite research showing that when drivers look at their phone for more than two seconds, the danger is comparable to drink driving, speeding or driving while fatigued.

To help drivers put away their phone, RACV has launched an online tool, Drive in the Moment

Adopting an approach similar to programs designed to break harmful habits such as smoking or gambling, the Drive in the Moment website aims to help drivers understand the dangers of using mobile phones, then tailor an individual plan to help them stop using their phones.

Elvira says the online tool will help drivers break their phone habit behind the wheel. She says the AAA survey found that although most drivers across all age groups had the best intentions to turn off their phones, few did.

International experts agree that looking at your phone for longer than two seconds is a greater risk to the driver and other road users than speeding, drug driving or fatigue.

The AAA and RACV Drive in the Moment campaign follows the Victorian government’s decision to trial traffic cameras for three months to detect mobile phone use and other illegal activities, including not wearing a seatbelt.

The trial is in line with RACV’s recent submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry on road safety which argued new technology could curb the road toll.

The government says research shows those who use a mobile phone while driving are four times more likely to cause a fatal road accident, while texting, browsing and emailing increase the crash risk even further – up to 10 times.

More than 30,000 motorists were issued with fines for using a mobile phone while driving in Victoria in 2017-18, according to government figures, and drivers and riders involved in distraction-related crashes may make up at least 11 per cent of road fatalities.

Elvira says the new AAA research is unique in that it looks at how drivers are using their mobile phones, not just for calls and text messages, but also for group chats, social media, GPS and music apps, which all take drivers’ attention away from the road.

She says the research shows that while the vast majority of drivers have tried limiting their phone use while driving, far too many are still engaging in this risky behaviour.

“Mobile phones continue to advance, with the apps deliberately designed to keep us glued to the screen, so it is incumbent on all motorists to do more to drive safely and cautiously,” she says.

“International experts agree that looking at your phone for longer than two seconds is a greater risk to the driver and other road users than speeding, drug driving or fatigue.

“Whether you’ve just got your licence, or you’ve driven on the roads for decades, RACV is reminding all drivers of the risks of even momentarily looking at your smartphone. Not only is it illegal, it risks the lives of everyone on the road network.”

Elvira says it is important that parents set a good example to novice drivers.

“We all have a part to play in everyone getting home safe and it is easy to forget that when we are even momentarily distracted on the roads. Even a brief distraction can be dangerous,” she says.

AAA research manager Dr Kate O’Donnell says different people use phones for different reasons which is why the RACV online tool allows people to tailor ways to reduce phone use for their individual needs.

“The good news is we can see from the research that people are trying to reduce their use, and we hope this new approach is one way that can help those who want to change their behaviour,” she says.

“We also know that the more drivers practise their plans, the more it helps our brains to rewire and change our intention to use the phone.

“We want Australians to aspire to be better, safer drivers, who take less risks on the road. Have a plan, ditch the distractions, and drive in the moment.”

The Drive in the Moment research was commissioned by the Australian Automobile Association in partnership with the New Zealand Automobile Association, using funding from the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile Foundation, and was conducted by the Queensland University of Technology Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety – Queensland surveying more than 1200 drivers.