Car driver using mobile phone
It’s time to declare war on mobile phones

Bicycle Network CEO Craig Richards shares his frustration about people who continue to use their mobile phones while driving, putting the lives of all road users at risk. 

In December 2017, professional cyclist Jason Lowndes was killed when Billie Rodda crashed into him while driving near Bendigo. She wasn’t speeding, she wasn’t intoxicated, she wasn’t sleep deprived.

She had sent and received 18 iMessages during the 38 minutes she had been driving home from work. She sent her last message just 68 seconds before she struck Jason Lowndes. She told police she was driving with her phone under her left leg.

She pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death, an offence with a maximum penalty of 10 years. Yesterday, instead of going to jail, she was sentenced to a three-year community corrections order and 200 hours of unpaid community service.

Yes, Billie Rodda stopped at the scene, co-operated with police and hasn’t committed any other criminal offences. But the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. It’s even more troubling that the outrage about this injustice seems to be confined to the bike riding community.

Using a hand held mobile phone while driving is extremely dangerous. It increases your likelihood of crashing four times. Despite this horrifying reality, over half of Australians admit to illegally using their phone while driving.

By 2030 experts predict that the number of lives lost on our roads will increase 14%. The main reason is mobile phone use. So much for vision zero.

Why aren’t we doing more to stop mobile phone use while driving? The TAC has produced an advertisement and the government is buying cameras that will catch some offenders. But it’s not enough. We need stronger laws that provide more serious consequences for offenders and that prevent people offending in the first place.

The seriousness of the distraction caused by mobile phone use hit home in 2001 when when Anthony Marsh was killed while riding his bike on the Bellarine Peninsula when Silvia Ciach crashed into him while sending a text. She received a two-year suspended sentence.

At the time Bicycle Network argued that mobile phone use should be treated as seriously as drunk driving. That would mean that the charge for killing a person while using a hand held mobile phone should be culpable driving. It carries the same 20-year maximum penalty as manslaughter. But our law makers declined to take any action.  

Since 2001, mobile phone use has exploded. When Anthony Marsh was killed Facebook only existed in Mark Zuckerberg’s mind. But while technology has evolved at a furious pace, our court decisions have stagnated.

Those attending Billie Rodda’s court hearing endured legal argument about whether her offending was at the ‘lower end’ of dangerous driving or at the ‘lowest end’. Her mobile phone use seemed irrelevant because she wasn’t sending a message at the very moment she crashed into Jason Lowndes.

The research clearly says the distraction continues after you’ve pressed send. How long that continues is a question the answer to which is developing.

In 2018, Emma Kent only received a nine-month sentence for killing Gareth Davies when she was connecting her phone to the car audio system. Her eyes were off the road for 10 seconds. Close your eyes and count to ten and image you’re driving a car. After just two seconds it’s terrifying.

If you take a life because you’re using a hand held mobile phone while driving, that offence should be culpable driving. The law also needs to recognise that distraction continues after you’ve sent the message or finished the conversation and work needs to be done to determine the rules. Clearly the courts aren’t going to make this happen. We need parliament to show leadership and say enough is enough.

We also need parliament to make preventative laws mandating in car technology that blocks mobile phone use. Last time Bicycle Network called for this people objected arguing scenarios like, ‘What if my wife is having a baby?’ If that happens, pull over and help!

Mobile phones are addictive, and humans can’t be trusted. It’s time to take the decision to use a phone out of people’s hands.

Sadly, it’s now socially acceptable to use your mobile phone at almost any time. This includes driving. When Collingwood footballer Jordan De Goey was recently caught on his phone it was dismissed by the club and the football experts as minor and something everyone does.

There is one interesting exception where people put safety over communication convenience. If I pulled out my phone and made a call while coming in to land, I’d need a body guard to get off the plane. Mobile phone use while driving needs to be just as socially abhorrent.

No-one worries they’ll be the next driver to take an innocent person’s life. Too many people think they’re such good drivers they can multitask. But as Billie Rodda learnt, all it takes is half an hour of terrible behaviour for lives to be irreparably damaged.

On the other hand, bike riders worry that one day we might not make it home. That we could be killed by a distracted driver who, like Billie Rodda, doesn’t even brake before crashing into us.  

We worry that our families will have to endure the horror of a criminal trial. That they’ll have to listen to sickening victim blaming arguments about the colour of our clothing or our position on the road as the person that took our life tries to escape the consequences of their actions. That our families will be left bewildered at a sentence that seems to devalue the importance of our lives.

Of course, nothing we do now will bring the many victims like Jason Lowndes, Anthony Marsh and Gareth Davies back to their families. But if as a society we prioritise life over using our mobile phones and make some serious changes to our laws, we can prevent other irreplaceable lives being lost.

Since this piece was published the Victorian government said they are considering mobile phone detecting cameras and larger penalties.

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