NSW Police have called for the state government to toughen the penalty for drivers caught repeatedly using their mobile phones, amid disagreement over whether phone use in cars is actually a significant contributor to motor accidents.
Appearing before the Staysafe parliamentary inquiry in to driver and road user distraction, the NSW Police Assistant Commissioner, John Hartley, said the government needed both education and stronger enforcement to reduce the number of people becoming dangerously distracted by hand-held devices.
"From my point of view, a second mobile phone use offence should be a much higher penalty," he said. "If you're caught twice, maybe you lose your licence for a period of time."
Various witnesses appearing before this morning's committee hearing likened the risk posed by mobile devices to low-range drink driving.
A senior government transport bureaucrat said the government needed to raise awareness of distraction by mobile devices in a similar way as had been done with speeding and other risks in previous decades.
"Our desire is to get this issue of driver distraction, within the community, the same as we had drink driving, speeding and seat-belts into the community's mind in the '70s and '80s and '90s," said Tim Reardon, deputy director general, policy and regulation at Transport for NSW.
But during this morning's hearings, one MP on the committee questioned whether mobile phones and other devices actually posed a serious threat to road safety.
Labor MLC Walt Seccord cited the government's own statistics that showed mobile phones accounted for only 1 per cent of all crashes blamed on driver distraction. Between July 2010, and December 2011, only 60 out of 4913 "distraction" crashes resulting in injuries or death involved mobile phones. The vast majority, 77 per cent, were distracted or had their vision obscured by something outside the vehicle.
"Isn't this just revenue raising?" he queried.
The standard penalty for using a hand-held phone while driving is $265 and three demerit points. Almost 46,000 people were charged with this offence in 2011.
But several experts who appeared before the committee said the data about the involvement of mobile phones in crashes was unreliable, because police still usually relied on motorists confessing to being on their phone when they crashed.
"No one admits to using a mobile phone while they're driving," Mr Hartley said.
Mobile phone usage was identified as contributing to nine fatal crashes in NSW since 2005, he said.
The inquiry continues.