The tale of a Sydney driver being fined because her passenger was on FaceTime incited shock and outrage in June 2019, but drivers may be interested to know similar penalties are becoming commonplace on roads across the nation.
Sheree Panetta took to Facebook to vent about the $337 fine she received from NSW Police, with her post quickly going viral.
"Tell your passengers to stay off their phones while you are driving, I got fined because my passenger was on FaceTime. Honestly didn't know that was a thing," Panetta wrote, prompting over 2000 comments and 35,000 shares.
But some of Panetta's stunned Facebook friends may be curious to learn that laws around passenger phone use extend beyond New South Wales, with every state in Australia having some kind of provision in place to combat this new-age problem.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story did not include Victoria's laws and penalties
"Mobile phones, even when held by a passenger, can be a dangerous distraction for the driver. In NSW, being distracted by a screen held by a passenger attracts a penalty of $344 and three demerit points. In a school zone that penalty jumps to $457 and four demerit points," NRMA Road Safety Expert Dimitra Vlahomitros said.
"Drivers and screens do not mix – it doesn’t matter who is holding the device. Using FaceTime, taking selfies with the driver or showing the driver a funny cat video is a no-no."
In most states a mobile phone is categorised as a "visual display unit", meaning it is considered akin to a television screen.
Under some state laws, mobile phones can be used as a driver's aid as long as they're affixed in a secure, approved mounting on the dash and the driver is not required to touch the device.
But if the phone is in a passenger's hands, the legality of the matter enters a grey area where penalties depend on how much of the screen is visible to the driver, whether the driver is on their probationary licence or how the state defines the word "use".
For example, in Tasmania there is no specific law regarding passenger phone use and any penalties imposed depend entirely on context.
"In relation to matters of evidence the term 'use' is critical," a Tasmania Police spokesperson told CarAdvice.
"If a passenger was using a phone and the driver observed the screen I don’t think that would qualify as the driver using the phone. If that was the case I am sure you could argue against advertising on billboards, Metro buses, business vehicles and so on."
But in Queensland and the Northern Territory, drivers caught looking at their passenger's phone screen can be fined anywhere from $500 to $2669.
Curious what the law is in your own state? We investigated the various restrictions and penalties across Australia and here's what we learned...
New South Wales
As previously mentioned, NSW drivers can be penalised if their passenger is using a phone which has a display that is visible to the driver.
The penalty for this offence is $344 and three demerit points, or $457 and four demerit points if the offence is committed in a school zone.
In Victoria, there are no specific laws banning passengers from using their mobile phone in a car.
However, under road rule 272 a passenger must not interfere with a driver's control of the vehicle or obstruct the driver's view. This behaviour can attract a fine of three penalty units (approximately $495).
Additionally, there are laws preventing the use of any visual display unit that has any part of the image on the screen visible to the driver from the normal driving position.
The maximum penalty for this is 10 penalty units. The current value of a penalty unit is $165.22.
In the ACT, passengers are legally permitted to use their phones while another person is driving.
However, there are penalties for drivers driving "with a distracting TV or video display unit" that could include a passenger's phone.
This infringement attracts a fine of $245.
South Australia's laws are in line with those in NSW, specifically: "A driver must not drive a vehicle that has a television receiver or visual display unit in or on the vehicle operating while the vehicle is moving, or is stationary but not parked, if any part of the image on the screen is visible to the driver from the normal driving position; or is likely to distract another driver."
The fine is $109, plus a $60 victims of crime levy, which brings it to $169. There are no demerit points attached to this offence.
In the NT, drivers are not allowed to drive with a visual display unit in the vehicle that has any part of the screen visible to the driver from the normal driving position.
Under Australian Road Rule 299, "if the phone is being held by the front seat passenger and the screen is visible to the driver, the driver is in breach of Rule 299(1) irrespective of whether it is being used as a driver's aid".
The penalty is $500 and three demerit points.
"In Queensland, it is illegal to drive with a television or visual display unit in the vehicle if the screen is visible to the driver from the driving position," a Queensland Transport and Main Roads spokesperson said.
"For example, a driver cannot use a mobile phone to watch YouTube or a movie. This includes where a passenger is holding a mobile phone screen for the driver to see.
"The penalty for these offences is an on-the-spot fine of $177 or a maximum court imposed fine of $2669."
Additionally, passengers of learner and P1 drivers under 25 are banned from using a mobile phone's loudspeaker function.
Under Tasmanian law, drivers are banned from using mobile phones for calls or driver's aids unless the phone is either affixed to the car, or "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".
The latter would theoretically allow for a passenger to hold a phone with Google maps or a phone call on it as long as the driver wasn't controlling or touching the phone.
WA law decrees: "A driver shall not drive a motor vehicle that has a television receiver or visual display unit in or on the vehicle operating while the vehicle is moving, or is stationary but not parked, if any part of the image on the screen – (a) is visible to the driver from the normal driving position; or (b) is likely to distract another driver."
The penalties can include a fine and the accrual of demerit points.