Road Rules and Driver Distraction

The National Transport Commission (NTC) is currently reviewing how the Australian Road Rules deal with driver distraction. The current rules relating to driver distraction were developed in 1999 when mobile phones were mainly used for calls and text messages and in-vehicle technology was limited to television screens. The review will consider the variety of ways that mobile devices are now used and the range of in-vehicle technology that now exists. It will recommend changes to the Road Rules in Australia to better address driver distraction.

The NTC has released an issues paper, which seeks to:

  • Arrive at a common understanding of the problem of driver distraction;
  • Identify the factors that contribute to driver distraction by reference to research into their impact on road safety;
  • Review the Australian Road Rules and determine whether they deal adequately with driver distraction;
  • Analyse the key issues prior to developing solutions.

The issues paper seeks public comment as to technologies that assist and distract from driving, whether technology can deliver benefits to road safety and which behaviours should be avoided or minimised while driving.

The issues paper identifies that driver distraction is a road safety problem that is less understood than other risks like drink driving and speeding. The Road Rules currently prohibit the use of specific types of technology, such as mobile phones, while allowing their use as driver’s aids. However, innovation during the last two decades has blurred the line between functions that distract and those that improve driver safety. The road rules do not recognise the distinction between functions that distract and those necessary for the driving task. The Road Rules also fail to recognise the distractions that arise from non-technology activities.

What is driver distraction?

Driver distraction is when a driver’s attention is diverted away from the driving task to a competing activity. Driver distraction can be voluntary (such as making a phone call or eating) or involuntary (such as turning away to attend to a screaming baby). Voluntary distraction is initiated by the driver, whilst involuntary distraction is not. When a driver is voluntarily distracted, they can alter their driving behaviour to compensate for being distracted; when they are involuntarily distracted, they may not be able to do so.

The Australian Road Rules do not currently contain a definition of driver distraction or list the behaviours that worsen driver performance.

The NTC Issues Paper defines driver distraction as, ‘the voluntary or involuntary diverting of attention, in a visual, manual, auditory or cognitive sense, away from the driving task to focus on a competing secondary activity.’

What is the driving task?

The NTC Issues Paper identifies the driving task as complex and involving:

  • route finding
  • route following
  • lateral motion control
  • longitudinal motion control
  • monitoring the driving environment
  • manoeuvre planning
  • responding to objects or events
  • making other road users aware of the driver’s presence;
  • complying with road rules.

What causes driver distraction?

There are a range of activities that can lead to distraction whilst being legal, such as eating, drinking, smoking and listening to the radio. Having passengers in the car can also mean reduced attention to the driving task.

Roadside advertising has also been found to adversely affect driver attention, particularly where electronic billboards are placed beside roads.

The use of mobile devices is also linked to driver distraction, though the level of distraction caused by device use depends on how experienced a driver the person is as well as how old they are and associated factors like deteriorating sight and hearing.

It has been suggested that the use of a GPS to navigate while driving negatively impacts driver performance though no statistics are available on GPS-related accidents.

What are the Road Rules on distraction?

There are three Australian Road Rules relating to driver distraction, which have been enacted with minor variations in all states and territories.

Road Rule 297 states, ‘ A driver must not operate a vehicle unless the driver has proper control of the vehicle.

Road Safety Road Rule 299 states, ‘A driver must not drive a vehicle that has a television receiver or visual display unit operating if the screen is visible to the driver or is likely to distract another driver.’

Road Rule 300 states, ‘The driver of a vehicle must not use a mobile phone while the vehicle is moving unless:

  • the phone is being used to make an audio call and the body of the phone is affixed to the vehicle or does not require the driver to press anything on the phone or manipulate any part of the phone; or
  • the phone is being used as a driver’s aid and the body of the phone is affixed to the vehicle and the phone does not require the driver to press anything on the phone or manipulate any part of the phone; or
  • the vehicle is an emergency vehicle or a police vehicle; or
  • the driver is exempt from this rule under another law.’

All jurisdictions have an offence of careless driving or driving without due care and attention.

Why do the rules need to change?

The current road rules have not kept pace with the development of mobile phones and other mobile devices. They treat different types of driver distraction differently and are confusing. Legislation that addresses the issue of driver distraction as a whole could improve road safety and deter drivers from becoming distracted if effectively and consistently enforced.

The NTC Issues Paper is open for public comment until 14 February 2019 and submissions can be made here.

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