There has been no decrease in the rate of handheld mobile phone use by Melbourne drivers in recent years despite penalties and legislation, according to a study published in the latest Medical Journal of Australia.
There is a fourfold increased risk of having a crash when using a mobile phone when driving, but researchers observed no decrease in the number of drivers using mobiles between 2002 and 2006.
Professor David Taylor, Director of Emergency Medicine Research at Austin Health in Melbourne, and his co-authors, say the apparently unchanged rates of handheld mobile use among drivers may be the result of higher numbers of people owning mobile phones.
"Over eight million mobile phone handsets were sold in Australia in 2005, more than double the figure in 2002," Prof Taylor says.
Because of this, he says, it is possible that public awareness campaigns have had a greater impact than the figures in their study suggest.
However, Prof David says mobile phone use is still a preventable risk, and policing and further public awareness campaigns are needed to get people to not use their mobiles while driving.
"We recommend research into prevention and deterrence, and into reasons for continuing handheld mobile use while driving."
In a related editorial in the Journal, Dr Suzanne McEvoy, Senior Research Fellow at The George Institute for International Health in Sydney, says mobiles are just one of a number of devices that may distract a driver.
Other potential distractions include driving-related technologies that seek to enhance mobility or safety, or non-driving related technologies such as iPods or wireless email.
Safety issues include: poor understanding of system operation; drivers taking more risks because they rely on additional safety equipment; system misuse; and increased driver workload.
Driving-related technologies that benefit road safety need regulatory requirements to ensure new vehicles are fitted with the technology.
"Drivers must be educated in the correct use of the technology," Dr McEvoy says.
"Any technologies found to be unsafe will require measures to limit their use by people while driving."
The Medical Journal of Australia is a publication of the Australian Medical Association.