Drivers using a mobile phone illegally have a greater chance of getting caught from today, as NSW becomes the first place in the world to introduce mobile phone detection cameras – and other Australian states are poised to follow.
A mix of 10 fixed and portable mobile phone detection cameras will be installed in NSW from today (1 December 2019); another 35 are planned over the next four years.
During a three-month trial at two locations in metropolitan Sydney (Anzac Parade and the M4 Motorway), 100,000 drivers were detected using a mobile phone illegally among the 8.3 million vehicles caught on camera, the equivalent of more than $34 million in fines.
Sophisticated software automatically detects if a driver is handling a phone. Filtered images are then checked by a human eye by NSW authorities before a fine is issued. Discarded images are deleted from digital files within an hour.
NSW will send warning letters – but no fine – for the first three months, before penalties of $344 and five demerit points are issued from 1 March 2020. In school zones the fine increases to $457 and during double demerits periods 10 points are issued.
The technology was invented by a University of Melbourne engineering graduate after a cyclist friend was killed in late 2013 by a driver suspected of being on a mobile phone.
“After my friend James was killed by a distracted and impaired driver I filled the walls of my office with ideas on how technology could have prevented this,” the inventor of mobile phone detection cameras, Alexander Jannink, told CarAdvice.
“At the time, driver distraction wasn’t recognised as a really serious or emerging road safety issue, but it quickly became apparent that mobile phones and our reliance on them was starting to impact road safety,” said Mr Jannink, managing director of Acusensus, a technology company that supplies road safety cameras to authorities in Australia and overseas.
“Distracted driving is causing a whole lot of new road accidents and fatalities at the moment and it’s totally unaddressed, unlike drink driving or speeding, which are now fairly in control,” he said. “Distracted driving is a major new challenge, it’s a killer on our roads.”
While other states are yet to announce the rollout of mobile phone camera detection technology, they won’t be far behind NSW.
“We can’t comment on which jurisdiction might be next but every other state and territory is watching closely,” said Mr Jannink.
The mobile phone camera detection system works night or day and in any weather conditions. Using advanced camera and radar technology it can operate accurately at speeds up to 300kmh.
The system captures high resolution photographs of every vehicle that passes “and gets high-quality, prosecutable evidence of drivers touching the phone illegally wherever that may be within the cabin”, said Mr Jannink.
The high-speed and high-resolution technology is so accurate it could also be used to enforce speeding, seatbelt use, and detect the number of occupants in cars in transit lanes, however for now the focus is on mobile phone use.
“We are focusing on distracted driving first [though] the exact same hardware can be leveraged for other capabilities. The number of fatalities involving somebody not wearing a seatbelt is about 20 to 30 per cent in Australia, even though 99.9 per cent of people wear a seatbelt,” said Mr Jannink.
Unlike NSW speed cameras, which have warning signs before them, there will be no warning signs for mobile phone detection cameras – despite repeated calls from the State Opposition and the NRMA who argued signs would prompt drivers to get off their phones.
On Friday NSW minister for roads and transport, Andrew Constance, told Radio 2GB: “We want to create the same environment that we have around [random breath testing] because quite frankly using a mobile phone is equivalent to driving drunk behind the wheel.”
“We’re seeing too many accidents, too many people hurt and killed, and the phone is a hidden villain in this because it quite often is hard to detect whether someone was on a phone before a car accident because quite often phones get destroyed,” said Mr Constance.
In response to accusations of revenue raising, Mr Constance said: “With revenue raising for fines around speed cameras and the mobile phone detection cameras, all that money is going into a community road safety fund to get idiots to behave as they should have in the first place, and not drive dangerously on the road. We’re having to plough it back in to educate people who should have done the right thing in the first place.”
In the five years to the end of 2017, the NSW Government claims 184 crashes involved illegal mobile phone use, resulting in seven deaths and 105 injuries.
Despite some of the strictest enforcement of mobile phone use in the world, many drivers are still unaware of the fineprint of the law.
Novice drivers such as learners and provisional licence holders are not allowed to use any function of a mobile phone while driving, including audio and navigation. The device can be kept in their pocket, a bag, or in a console of the car, but it cannot be rested on their body, handled, or used in any way while driving.
Fully licenced drivers are not allowed to use any function of the phone other than to take or make a call, play audio, or use navigation maps.
However, in most jurisdictions these functions can only be activated by voice. Drivers can’t even touch the phone to take or make a call, even when in an approved and secure phone mount.
If the phone needs to be touched to operate audio or navigation functions, this must be done before the vehicle is moving – or only via smartphone mirroring apps such as Apple Car Play and Android Auto, which use the vehicle's infotainment screen.
For example, according to NSW legislation it is illegal for drivers to “enter or place, other than by use of voice, anything into the phone or sending or looking at anything that is in the phone, turning the phone on or off, operating any other function of the phone”.
Further, a mobile phone cannot be “held”, which includes “held by or resting on any part of the driver’s body”.
The law in the Australian Capital Territory explicitly states: “The use of the phone does not require the driver, at any time while using it, to press any thing on the body of the phone or to otherwise manipulate any part of the body of the phone. Pushing buttons on a phone that is in a cradle … is not allowed.”
In NSW and most other jurisdictions the car must be parked in a designated parking area and the vehicle stopped before a phone can be used. It is still illegal to use a phone when the vehicle is stopped in a line of traffic: “You must not use a hand-held mobile phone or visual display unit while driving, even if you are stopped at traffic lights”.
In Victoria, police can issue mobile phone tickets to drivers even if the car is parked and in a designated parking space if the engine is still on, because the wording of the law says “while operating a motor vehicle”. This law has been tested in court and drivers have lost.
In NSW, to use a mobile phone “you must be parked out of the line of traffic, however, the ignition does not need to be turned off”, says the NSW Centre for Road Safety website.
The Australian Capital Territory is to date the only jurisdiction to have separate fines for mobile phone calls versus other functions, including “messaging, social networking, mobile application or accessing internet”.
For now, there are still no specific laws covering smart watches – which can display phone messages – and tablets such as iPads. However, police can instead issue distracted driving tickets such as “not have proper control of vehicle”.
While double demerit points will be in force over the Christmas and New Year period in NSW from December 20 to January 1, 2020 – where drivers risk a $344 fine and 10 demerits for using a mobile phone illegally, here are the fines across Australia:
Mobile phone fines in Australia:
NSW mobile phone fines: $344 and five demerit points, $457 and five demerit points in school zones, points doubled during double demerit periods.
Queensland mobile phone fines: $1000 and four demerit points from 1 February 2020, currently $400 and three points. Repeat offenders receive double demerit points if caught again within 12 months from the previous offence.
Victoria mobile phone fines: $496 and four demerit points.
Australian Capital Territory mobile phone fines: $480 three demerit points for handheld phone use, $589 and four demerit points for driver using mobile device for messaging, social networking, mobile application or accessing internet.
South Australia mobile phone fines: $554 and three demerit points.
Western Australia mobile phone fines: $400 and three demerit points.
Northern Territory mobile phone fines: $500 and three demerit points.
Tasmania mobile phone fine: $336 and three demerit points.
Information accurate as at December 2019.