Road safety experts yesterday criticised the State Government's loosening of mobile phone driving laws after research showed the number of fatal crashes caused by driver inattention almost doubled last year.
Researchers from Victoria and Queensland said yesterday allowing a motorist to dial a phone while driving put them at far greater risk of being involved in a crash.
On March 1 last year, Police Minister Rob Johnson softened laws to allow motorists to dial their phone while driving if it was in a mounted "cradle" device despite previously admitting that using a phone behind the wheel quadrupled the chance of a crash.
Prior to that, a motorist could use a phone legally while driving only if it was in a cradle and they were receiving a call or making one using voice-activation technology or a Bluetooth hands-free kit.
A police analysis of the 179 road fatalities last year has found that 24 per cent were caused by driver inattention compared with just 13 per cent the previous year, and a five-year average prior to last year of only 9 per cent. Road Safety Council chairman D'Arcy Holman said mobile phone use was not the sole cause of driver inattention.
"The (road death) data that is being referred to is police reported causes under an umbrella of inattention and does not necessarily bear any connection to mobile phone use or the laws themselves and often is not an accurate reflection of the behaviour of drivers," Mr Holman said.
"It could even be down to increased awareness around distraction and show it is being named as the cause more often."
But Monash University Accident Research Centre Professor Max Cameron, one of the State Government's top road safety advisers, said he had been "surprised" by the loosening of the laws.
"I would have thought they would move in the other direction (to tougher laws) if they were going to make a change," he said.
Professor Simon Washington, from Queensland University of Technology's Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety, said even speaking on a phone while driving was a dangerous distraction.