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Relation of mobile phone availability to crashes in NZ

Distracted driving NZ
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Relation of mobile phone availability to crashes in NZ
Dr PJ Treffner

My analysis and visualisation of Ministry of Transport data on road fatalities and injuries from 1990 to 2018 shows that there is a strong correspondence between:
(1) the widespread availability of mobile phones beginning around 2000 and an increase in casualties,
(2) the introduction of NZ mobile phone laws in November 2009 and a decrease in casualties, and
(3) the widespread availability and adoption of new smartphone technology in 2013 and a sharp increase in casualties; this is in contrast to other countries.

Below is NZ MOT data as of mid-December 2018. Click to enlarge.

Phone availability and road casualties in NZ

Unlike the above profiles show, the trend since the 1990s in many countries has been for a continual reduction in road casualties.

However, in New Zealand this trend has stopped and has been increasing in recent years. Why is this?

Deaths per 1000,000 inhabitants (G7 countries in background; OECD data site):


The increase in road deaths and injuries since the minimum in 2013 may be related to the widespread availability and use while driving of smartphones (especially texting) despite nominal, low penalty laws against it.

The relation between mobile phone availability and casualties is even more apparent in the dramatic increase in nonfatal injuries as compared to deaths. As there are about 40 times more injuries than deaths, the disastrous effects on society of inattention due to using mobile phones while driving may be vastly under-appreciated.

The Ministry of Transport data on road deaths is below (1990 - 2017). Why the upturn since 2013? That is the question everyone is asking:


The MOT data on crashes due to fatigue and to diverted attention is shown below with 39 deaths in 2017:


The fatigue data shows no particular pattern other than an overall slight reduction from a maximum of 76 in 1999. There are now more deaths due to distraction than to fatigue. Note that "diverted attention", is far harder to determine from driver self-reports or crash scene than an admission of fatigue by the driver. Of course, falling asleep at the wheel is a dramatic form of inattention too.

The high point for deaths due to inattention (41) was just before the phone ban started being enforced in 2010.

The dramatic drop was in 2011-2012 and is clearly probably due to greater enforcement and awareness of the ban on phones.

The minimum (22) was in 2013 just before smartphones became widely available. The deaths for last year (2017) were 39. I predict a new maximum for 2018, perhaps 45 (if the increase continues).

It is also instructive to look at the effect of "speed". Has speed contributed to the upturn since 2013? What about drunk/drugged driving? Here is the data:


Speed or rather "speeding" as a primary causative does not seem to have been responsible for the dramatic upturn in overall deaths since 2013. However, drunk/drugged driving seems to be involved and is easier to objectively determine (e.g., with a biological test). Distracted driving is harder to legally prove and is clearly underestimated by the policing authorities worldwide, but it is clear from the huge amount of international studies both empirical (simulators and on-road) and qualitative (surveys), and from plain logic, that this is an epidemic in all countries now and urgently needs addressed in NZ.

One telling piece of evidence comes from young person (15 - 24 yrs) deaths which have been increasing in recent years too. Their pattern closely follows the pattern for deaths involving inattention and, since 2005, is strongly correlated (.76) - ups and downs in diverted attention casualties correspond with ups and downs in young person casualties. Young drivers have consistently been shown to text and drive at much higher rates than older drivers although older drivers have high rates of phone use and texting too. As expected, inattention deaths correlates strongly with all fatalities (.75) since all fatalities data includes young persons data. Alcohol/drugs casualties (in all age groups) is correlated with young person casualties (.72) too, but less than is inattention (.76). It is important to realise that for young persons, mobile phone use is very high (e.g., typically at least 50% admit to texting). Therefore, distracted driving is a significant factor in young person casualties and needs to be addressed.

This is all compelling evidence for a significant relation between distracted driving and road casualties in NZ and supports the concern about drivers and distracted driving.


Actual data values for deaths:


When data on deaths from the groups involving: (1) inattention, (2) alcohol/drugs, (3) young persons, and (4) all deaths are scaled to maximum values, visualisation of the trends is clear:


No more data is needed - we have plenty from MOT and research groups for the government to impose stiffer penalties in order to discourage distracted driving and, especially, texting (texting should carry a special extra penalty to that of talking on a phone).

Further consideration of the relation between mobile phone use and casualties is warranted and a re-evaluation of mobile phone disincentives (and penalties) is needed if NZ is to stop wasting time and is to start to reverse this much-pondered and debated recent increase in casualties and to see a reduction in road trauma to a level similar to comparable countries.

Consider penalties for hand-held use of a mobile phone:

Penalties in UK: $400 and HALF of total points (6/12).

Penalties in NZ: $80 and only a fifth of total points (20/100).

Penalties in Australia are comparable to the UK (e.g., Queensland). Australia started banning phone use during 2000s and all states now have mobile phone penalties as high as A$548 (ACT; for texting) and a low of A$200 (NT; almost treble the NZ fine). New Zealand did not introduce phone laws until November 2009.

Having conducted the world's first actual on-road studies of distracted driving I concur that inattentive driving is responsible for as much as 80% of all crashes (Treffner et al., 2002, 2004, 2008). Attention is a powerful but delicate thing (e.g.,  change blindness). Inherently unstable systems such as standing, walking, and driving require attention in order to stabilise them (Treffner & Kelso, 1999). Where attention is directed can also alter motor control and coordination in subtle and surprising ways (Amazeen et al., 1998; Treffner & Turvey, 1995); an everyday case is driving. Further, using a mobile phone, even hands-free, while driving always leads to some degree of cognitive interference and in its worst form, "inattentional blindness". This is a serious violation of the basic expectations of care and respect for other road users. But in NZ the low penalty of 20 points is even less than the misdemeanor of not displaying L-plates (25 points). The current historic and rather trivial penalty for phone use does not acknowledge the serious damage inattentive driving is increasingly having on society nor does it even attempt to address the problem by imposing realistic penalties that would make careless drivers think twice...unless they don't care about losing their license (or worse).

Should penalties be increased?

Surely yes.


Three kinds of distraction: Visual, manual, and cognitive.

UPDATE Feb 2020
"Ministry of Transport and the NZ Transport Agency commissioned several reports to investigate the trend. But none could pin the rising toll to usual factors like shifts in travel, employment or economic growth....New research into the country's appalling road toll figures has blamed alcohol and drivers on learner licences for a spike in crash deaths....Three big factors jumped out: alcohol, learner licences and a regional spate in Auck
land...over the 2014 to 2017 period, the odds of alcohol being a factor in a fatal crash shot up by about 40 per cent."
-NZ Herald:
I SHOWED THIS OVER A YEAR AGO (and nobody paid me a cent)!! 
See final graph above showing upward trends since 2013.
They do not admit that DISTRACTED DRIVING is the third major factor, especially non-fatalities (which they often ignore). It is NOT speeding or fatigue as Police claim. It is alcohol/drugs, young drivers, and distracted driving:
In fact, they say "inattention" FATALITIES (how even know?!) increased from 27 (2014) to 41 (2017) - up 53%!! Compare alcohol: 77 to 136 - just 43%. They continue to ignore the underestimated epidemic of inattentive driving.
The cause of increasing road deaths is not that they are young, or still on a Learner's Licence! They are young (<25 yrs), unskilled, inexperienced, and the demographic most at risk from INATTENTION.
The CAUSE is psychological - cognitive distraction and inattention.
The REASON is they not committed to developing the care and awareness required to pass the full license test. They are especially unaware of the attention and respect required to drive safely. The important MESSAGE here is that it is young unskilled drivers (<25 yrs) that are crashing the most BECAUSE they are the most susceptible to inattention and drugs/alcohol. It is next to impossible to show the extent of the massive role of inattention in crash causality studies, especially when the victim is dead. Inattention in some form is the reason and cause of virtually ALL crashes. This is completely underestimated and ignored (as in their report) in attempts to identify the "causes" of crashes. Reasons are not the same as causes but both can explain NZ's recent increase in road casualties.



References on driving, attention, phones, and speech-hand coordination

Treffner, P. J. (2018). Driver distraction - Is it that bad? Yes. Invited talk plus workshop at 43rd annual conference of NZ Institute of Driver Educators.

Treffner, P. J., Peter, M., & Kleidon, M. (2008). Gestures and phases: The dynamics of speech-hand communication. Ecological Psychology, 20, 32-64.Try experiment.

Treffner, P. J., & Barrett, R. (2004). Hands-free mobile phone speech while driving degrades coordination and control. Transportation Research, Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 7, 229-246. Media coverage.

Treffner, P. J., Barrett, R., & Petersen, A. J. (2002). Stability and skill in driving. Human Movement Science, 21, 749-784.

Treffner, P. J., & Peter, M. (2002). Intentional and attentional dynamics of speech-hand coordination. Human Movement Science, 21, 641-697.

Treffner, P. J., & Kelso, J. A. S. (1999). Dynamic encounters: Long-memory during functional stabilization. Ecological Psychology, 11, 103-137.

Amazeen, E., Amazeen, P., Treffner, P. J., & Turvey, M. T. (1997). Attention and handedness in bimanual coordination dynamics. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 23, 1552-1560.

Treffner, P. J., & Turvey, M. T. (1996). Symmetry, broken symmetry, and the dynamics of bimanual coordination. Experimental Brain Research, 107, 463-478.

Treffner, P. J., & Turvey, M. T. (1995). Handedness and the asymmetric dynamics of bimanual rhythmic coordination. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 21, 318-333.





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(c) Paul Treffner, 20/12/18

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