Greg Murphy calls for immediate fines as cameras start taking photos of Auckland motorists using mobile phones

Auckland drivers, watch out.

From Tuesday, three cameras across the city - locations unknown - will start taking photos of people inside their cars if both their hands aren't on the steering wheel.

The NZ Transport Agency Waka Kotahi will turn the cameras on as part of a six-month trial that will detect people whose hands are not on the steering wheel and are potentially otherwise occupied with a phone.

However, New Zealand racing icon and road safety advocate Greg Murphy is calling for fines to be handed out from the get-go.

"I think the idea of bringing in this technology is actually very good," he told AM host Ryan Bridge. "I don't think we need to do a trial because all you need to do is stand on any street around New Zealand… to see excessive use of people driving with cellphones in their hands. You don't need a trial to know that driving behaviour is pretty abysmal and the prevalence of cellphone use is absolutely enormous."

Waka Kotahi said the trial would initially capture only mobile phone use, with plans for the detection of people not wearing seatbelts to be brought in later. 

Driver distraction was a contributing factor in nearly 8 percent of fatal crashes.

Transport Minister Michael Wood said earlier this year it was going to take a tireless effort to reduce New Zealand's road toll.

The Government launched its 'road to zero' campaign in February, aimed at reducing the road toll by 40 percent by 2030 before achieving no deaths or injuries on New Zealand's roads by 2050. 

"We know it's realistic with some hard work because we've seen it done in other countries," Wood said at the time. 

Speaking to AM on Monday, Waka Kotahi land transport director Kane Patena said the eventual plan for the cameras was to be able to issue fines to those caught using their mobile phones while driving.

"We want to understand how the technology works in a New Zealand context because it could well be that it's used as a monitoring and enforcement tool in the future," he said. 

"It's a technology that could do a number of things rather than just simply one thing.

"First and foremost, it will detect whether you've got two hands on the steering wheel or one, but the technology's pretty good - it will also detect whether you're carrying something in your hand."

Murphy described distracted driving in New Zealand as an "epidemic".

Greg Murphy.
Greg Murphy. Photo credit: File

"Distraction is just horrid," Murphy said. "It should be a minimum $500 [fine] and if it was my way it would be $1000, and police would have the ability to confiscate people's devices.

"I don't know why people can't be sent warning letters from this trial - if we are going to go through with it - to actually tell them and let them know that they've been spotted using a phone. Why not use the trial in a more effective way rather than gathering data and checking the technology?"

Fines for using cell phones while driving are currently $150 and Patena agreed they needed to be increased significantly.

"We can only do what the law allows us to do and, currently, we can't send out any infringements for people who are detected through the use of this particular camera system.

"If there are changes to the legislation that allows camera technology like this to be used for enforcement purposes, then the trial gives us a really good understanding and confidence that we can rely on the technology for infringements in the future.

"There's no question that the level of fines in New Zealand is significantly less than in other countries - you only need to look to the state of Victoria in Australia… There's no doubt in my mind the current level of penalties is way too low."