Legally, yes … but only if you’re an idiot
It’s been said before, but the law’s an ass. Take Rule 300 from the Australian Road Rules, which you can download as a PDF. It’s the one about using mobile telephones in cars. The kindest thing you can say about it is that it’s crafted with the best of outdated intentions.
Basically, rule 300 says the driver’s not allowed to use a mobile phone while the car’s moving, or while stationary but not parked (such as when you’re stopped at a red light).
There’s a page-and-a-half of caveats that go with this rule. One such caveat is that you’re allowed to use your mobile – for voice calls only – if it’s fitted to a commercial cradle or handsfree kit that holds the body of the phone. It has to be commercial – you can’t just gaffer-tape it to the steering wheel. But you’re not allowed to make or receive a video call, send or receive a text message or email (you can receive a text or an email as long as you don’t look at it and as long as it doesn’t display automatically) at any time.
According to the rules, ‘use’ of the phone includes touching it or holding it – regardless of whether it’s actually being used to communicate. (You are allowed to pass it to a passenger.) Use includes entering or placing anything into the phone, or sending or looking at anything in the phone, or turning it on or off, or using “any other function” in the phone.
Hold that last thought – any other function. Let’s say your iPhone is also your portable music player. Newsflash: playing music, perhaps by streaming it to a Bluetooth receiver in the car (or just plugging it in via USB or 1/8-inch audio jack) and them pumping out those fat beats through the car’s audio system almost certainly comprises the use of “any other function” of the phone.
However, using an iPod to do exactly the same thing is allowed, subject to other existing laws that basically say you have to be diligently in control and aware of what’s going on around you as you drive. In other words, the use of portable music players isn’t specifically prohibited under the rules.
If that sounds crazy, it’s also illegal to open up a web page on your smartphone, invoke (say) Google Maps and then interrogate the web to get the navigation instructions that will take you from your designated A to your designated B du jour. However, if you were to perform this identical operation on your laptop or iPad via the 3G network, there’s no specific provision in the rules barring such insane on-the-move behaviour.
It goes without saying that using a laptop while driving is madness; off the Richter in terms of negligence. However, please take the time to perform a Google search of the words ‘steering wheel laptop holder’ and prepare to be truly, appallingly amazed.
Another insane activity not specifically proscribed under the rules is programming your Tom Tom or Navman while the car is moving. Just remember that if you take your eyes off the road for four seconds on the freeway, you cover the length of a football field, essentially blind to what’s happening outside the virtual domain.
Talking on a hand-held speaker-phone built into your mobile is also illegal. So is holding the phone in one hand and talking via a Bluetooth headset (it’s the holding that’s illegal; not the Bluetooth), or picking up the phone while wearing an earpiece to navigate to the desired number stored in your phone’s contacts list. Even punching in a number you know off by heart is illegal. Even if you’re stopped at the traffic lights. It’s also illegal to hold the handset and talk with a plug-in earpiece connected by wire to the body of the phone.
(For the record, I reckon it’s a great idea to have both hands on the wheel at every available opportunity. This holding the phone, or anything else, and taking one hand out of play is madness. Try performing an ISO-standard lane-change manoeuvre one-handed. I have. You can swerve one handed, sure, and maybe even avoid what you need to miss. But regaining control is nigh-on impossible – and it’s not much good to emulate that out in the real world, where you could miss hitting Skippy and then snot an oncoming semi-trailer or nudge a 100-year-old river red gum … just because you were sweating on an important e-mail.)
However … a laptop or 3G iPad connected to the web could probably make a person-to-person voice call using the Skype service without ever once using a telephone. You could probably even defend this behaviour in court if charged (I guess; I’m no lawyer) even though in the court of common sense you’d be guilty of extreme stupidity. E-mails and web browsing? Certainly not prohibited.
Existing mobile telephone law is riddled with extreme contradiction. Police and emergency services personnel are allowed to use them, handheld, any time. This exemption is specifically written in. So, in theory, the copper who pulls you over for using your own handheld mobile could himself at the time be using his own handheld mobile to order the station’s mid-morning coffee and donuts while he’s activating the lights and sirens behind you, and then writing out the ticket. I don’t know if this has ever happened. If we are to believe using a mobile while driving is a matter of life and death – literally – why are police and emergency services personnel allowed to use them even in circumstances that aren’t literally life and death?
Next, let’s not forget CB radios: using a CB (or any other type of two-way radio) is allowed – even though you have to physically hold the microphone and remember to press to talk, complexities that don’t pertain to use of a mobile telephone in speaker-phone mode.
When it comes to the hi-tech, the Australian Road Rules hasn’t a clue yet that we’re in the 21st Century – where connectivity is everything and, increasingly, everywhere. The Road Rules’ hard-line stand on mobile telephones hasn’t caught up with speaker-phones, Bluetooth, portable music players, satellite-navigation systems, WiFi and mobile 3G and 4G connectivity – even though you can bet those same bureaucrats who monitor the road rules and even update them periodically employ just about all those technologies on an almost daily basis. And we’re all paying these people.
The Australian Road Rules is a big document. You could print it out and beat someone to death with the printout. (That’s not advice.) It includes an 18-page dictionary of key terms, which at first glance seems quite comprehensive. ‘Portable warning triangle’, for example, is defined. So are ‘high beam’ and ‘police officer’ and even ‘green traffic light’. As if these things were open to misinterpretation. One strangely missing term is ‘mobile telephone’ – so how are you to know where the boundary between phone, navigator, music player and web browser is to be drawn? Especially if you’re so dumb you need ‘green traffic light’ defined.
The next big step for cars is that soon they’ll each be rolling WiFi hotspots, taking the web with them wherever and wherever they roll. Ford’s Sync system and GM’s OnStar are both pretty much web-ready. And then, what’s to stop you invoking the cruise control and downloading all of Car Advice’s current news for review at 110km/h as you head home for the day? However much we’d really like you to read that news (a lot) I think it’s fair to say we’d all prefer you to wait until you’re not driving.
How long do you think it will take Australian road regulators to come to grips with the time in the not too distant future when there’s an online interface front and centre in just about every new car? [Cue the sound of Hell freezing over.]
At the very least, where’s the high-profile education campaign right now, aimed at telling drivers how to manage distractions? Nowhere.
If we’re not careful there’s going to be an explosion of techno-induced negligence on the roads. Will technology actually start to contribute to an increase in road trauma? The one set of laws that don’t brook adjustment are Newton’s – they’re the laws that will bite you on the bum if you’re busy downloading Google Maps to your iPad when that oncoming B-double drifts over the centreline 50 metres up the road from where you’re driving right now. You’ve got less than two seconds to sort it out at 100km/h.
Heaven help the roads if we have to rely on the common sense of road users to decide when not to use an increasingly amazing array of hi-tech distractions.
Watch the video below if you're interested in how you can get your iPad mounted: