One call away from losing your licence
By LEIGH VAN DER STOEP - Sunday Star Times
Last updated 05:00 18/10/2009

Thousands of New Zealanders face losing their licences if they are caught just once using a hand-held cellphone while driving.

The penalty for breaching the new law, which comes into effect on November 1, is 20 demerit points and an instant $80 fine.

But figures obtained by the Sunday Star-Times show that 9009 Kiwi drivers already have between 80 and 99 demerit points. So if they are caught breaking the new law, they would reach or exceed the 100-point limit, and would automatically be banned from driving for three months.

Drivers get demerit points for offences including speeding, failing to observe a stop or give way sign, and breaching conditions of limited or learner licences. Demerit points expire two years after they are incurred.

New Zealand Transport Agency spokesman Andy Knackstedt says the thousands of drivers with more than 80 demerit points should be aware they face being forced off the road "as should anyone".

"The new rules are being introduced for a simple reason and that's to reduce the number of crashes due to inattention," he said.

Between 2003-08 there were 482 injury crashes and 25 fatal crashes on New Zealand roads where use of a mobile phone was a contributing factor.

The law change comes after years of public disquiet over the dangers of talking or texting on a hand-held phone while driving. Under the previous Labour-led government, then-Transport Minister Harry Duynhoven proposed a $50 fine and 25 demerit points for driving while using a hand-held phone, but National's new Transport Minister, Steven Joyce, pushed through the modified penalties.

Last night, frontline police told the Star-Times that copies of the legislation had been distributed to staff but official guidelines as to how to police the new law had not yet been issued. However, police at a local level were being told to exercise common sense and enforce the new law as with any road rule.

Frontline officers said the key to ticketing drivers for bad behaviour on the roads was having evidence, and enforcing the cellphone ban was no different.

"If you pull up next to someone talking on the phone, well, then that's a no-brainer," one officer said.

In some countries, the public has been encouraged to dob in fellow motorists, and cameras have been used to catch errant drivers.

But Police National Headquarters spokesman Grant Ogilvie couldn't say whether there were plans for such measures here. Motorists are currently able to report bad behaviour on the country's roads on the police website, or by calling *555 from their mobile phone (use of hand-held cellphones will still be allowed when drivers are dialling 111 or *555 for a genuine emergency and unable to stop first).

It was expected that disgruntled drivers would challenge their infringements early on, until authorities could build case law and precedent.

But Clive Matthew-Wilson of the Dog & Lemon car guide says the government had underestimated other major factors that cause crashes.

"Road accidents are caused by many factors a combination of the fact that the person has used a cellphone, and they are a bit tired, and they had a couple of beers, and there is sign strike, and you're going a bit fast, and the wheel alignment was out a bit."

He advocates instant confiscation of mobile phones, a move that would act as an immediate inconvenience and more effective deterrent. He says fines and demerits are only effective for a small group of drivers and not the problem groups.

More than 50 other nations have bans or partial bans on using a cellphone while driving, and many have harsher penalties. Breaching the cellphone ban in Ireland can earn offenders a three-month jail sentence.

Under New Zealand's new law, motorists will be allowed to use a hands-free phone kit.

From here.