A TEENAGER was sending and receiving regular text messages shortly before the van he was driving veered off a rain-soaked highway and rolled - fatally injuring one of 11 young passengers.
Aaron Gourlay, 18, was texting for 13 minutes while he drove the van full of mates back to Rotorua from a party in Taupo early on July 17, 2010, a coroner's inquest in New Zealand heard yesterday.
Jesse Howe, 17, died as a result of the massive head injuries he suffered when the Toyota Hi-Ace crossed the centreline, smashed into a bank, rolled and came skidding to a halt in the middle of State Highway 5.
Coroner Wallace Bain said the texting issue was a "real concern".
And figures provided to the New Zealand Herald show there has been a big jump in the number of tickets issued for cellphone use while driving.
Between November 2011 and last October, 12,538 fines were imposed, up from 9497 in the previous 12 months.
Police say most drivers have changed their behaviour, but that view isn't shared by the Automobile Association. Public affairs executive Mike Noon said last night that there was a noticeable change when a police blitz was on, but many drivers still weren't heeding the message.
Yesterday's inquest was told Gourlay was the sober driver on the night of the crash, using energy drinks and No-Doz tablets to combat fatigue.
But police said he was inexperienced behind the wheel.
The van was travelling too fast for the drizzly conditions, none of the 12 teens was buckled in and the front left-hand tyre was badly worn and poorly fitted - even though the van had passed a warrant of fitness check two days before.
Dr Bain described all of the factors as a "recipe for disaster", saying any one of them could have led to a fatality - but he specifically drew on Gourlay's texting, which he viewed as "impairing".
The group had a near-miss when Gourlay pulled out in front of an oncoming truck at an intersection.
After this, he held a text conversation with two people while driving.
The force of the crash, at 2.29am, sent all passengers flying on to the road, the roadside and into a ditch.
Police obtained text records from Gourlay's cellphone.
They showed the last of many texts was sent at 2.27am - about two minutes before the crash. "There was a large number of texts back and forward," Constable Russell Lowe told the coroner.
The police crash investigation team was unable to conclusively say Gourlay was texting and driving at the time he lost control - and could only list it as a contributing factor.
Mr Lowe said he had stopped numerous drivers using their phones, most of them young people. Most were driving while concentrating on their cellphone on their laps, he said.
Gourlay was later sentenced to six months' home detention on charges relating to both the fatal crash and a second crash a few months after while his licence was suspended.
Reserving his findings, Dr Bain said he was "extremely critical of the driving leading up to this accident ... and some of the subsequent driving, showing a recklessness, really, for responsibility here".
The AA wants to see increases to the level of fines and demerit point losses for drivers using phones.
"We don't think the New Zealand public have got it yet," said Mr Noon. "If you're doing this you're putting everybody on the road at risk and that's not acceptable."
Every driver had seen others on phones or texting from their laps.
"I do the motorway commute," Mr Noon said. "We've all seen it - and we think, 'My God, they're drunk.' They're weaving in the lane, they're going slow, they're going fast."
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