Blanket warnings never to use a phone while driving send the wrong message to drivers, Australia's mobile phone industry association says.
The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association says drivers should be taught that there is a safe and legal way to use a phone behind the wheel and that police and road safety authorities are bungling the message about the dangers of using mobile phones while driving by warning people never to use one.
Using a hands-free mobile phone while driving is legal under certain conditions in Australia, provided the phone is sitting in a cradle fixed to the windscreen or dashboard. In Victoria, a fully licensed driver may use a hands-free phone in a fixed cradle, but not a probationary or learner driver.
However, the Transport Accident Commission has in recent months begun to exhort drivers to place their phones in the boot, while VicRoads has launched an app that automatically diverts calls to voicemail and sends an SMS that the user is driving.
Chris Althaus, the association's chief executive, said Victoria was on track to record its lowest ever road toll this year, while mobile phone subscriptions continued to soar to all-time highs.
"If you look at a graph of the road toll and a graph of the adoption of mobile technology, they are going in opposite directions," Mr Althaus said.
"Thankfully we are driving the road toll down, but we have to be realistic and sensible about how we communicate the message on mobiles. Blanket statements with the best of intentions are unrealistic and generally proven to not work."
Illegal, hand-held mobile phone use ought to be discouraged and penalised in conjunction with more education about the correct use of hands-free phones, he said.
A 2012 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in the United States found talking or listening to a hand-held mobile phone increased the risk of a near-miss or crash by 1.3 times, but that reading while driving increased the risk by 3.4 times, and dialling a hand-held mobile phone increased the risk by 2.8 times.
Mr Althaus said the study indicated that the most dangerous act while driving was taking one's eyes off the road, not talking on the phone.
But a road safety expert accused the association of cherry-picking data.
Professor Mark Stevenson, Director of Monash University Accident Research Centre, said its own 2005 study found hands-free mobile phone use was every bit as risky as hand-held use. That study found that the risk of being in a crash increased fourfold when using a phone, whether or not it was hands-free.
"We showed in 2005 that hands free is as dangerous as hand held," Professor Stevenson said. "It is very difficult to enforce hands free but clearly the empirical evidence does show that it is a distracting factor in itself."
The TAC reiterated its message that it is safest to switch off a phone or put it out of reach while driving.
"While there are legal ways to use a mobile phone while driving, all studies into this issue show that the risk of crashing a car while using a mobile phone, even on a hands-free, is much greater than if the driver was not using the phone at all," chief executive Janet Dore said.
"The best way to ensure your safety when it comes to mobile phones while driving is to simply avoid using them. No phone call, message or social media update is important enough to take the risk of injuring yourself or others on the road."