Australian State to Use Smartphone Detection Cams to Catch and Fine Distracted Drivers

Traffic in Sydney, Australia in 2014.
Photo: Cameron Spencer (AP)

The government of New South Wales state in Australia is rolling out tech to automatically catch drivers who don’t put down their cell phones on the road, the Associated Press reported on Monday.

According to the AP, New South Wales Roads Minister Andrew Constance described the program as the first of its kind in the world. Constance told Australian Broadcasting Corp that “There is no doubt drink-driving as far as I’m concerned is on a par with mobile phone use, and that’s why we want everyone to be aware that you’re going to get busted doing this anytime, anywhere.”

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The plan involves the use of “Mobile Phone Detection Cameras,” according to the AP, 45 of which the government plans to roll out by December 2019. The system actually relies on two cameras, one of which photographs the car’s plates and another that ascertains what drivers are doing with their hands. The AP wrote that “artificial intelligence” will be used to narrow the pool down to those using their phones while driving, but that humans will have to verify the photos before a $232 fine is mailed out:

The units use artificial intelligence to exclude drivers who are not touching their phones. Photos that show suspected illegal behavior are referred for verification by human eyes before an infringement notice is sent to the vehicle’s registered owner along with a 344 Australian dollar ($232) fine. Some cameras will be permanently fixed on roadsides and others will be placed on trailers and moved around the state.

For some context here, New South Wales’ capital of Sydney is the most populated city in the country, with the NSW government estimating the region’s entire headcount at 7.95 million in March 2018. So this policy could affect quite a lot of drivers.

Distracted driving is a major problem; in the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that 3,166 people died in 2017 as a result of drivers who were not paying attention to the road. Australia is far stricter on this subject than in much of the U.S., where state law ranges from no restrictions on driver cell phone use to blanket bans on use of all handheld devices while driving.

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Australian officials told the AP that an earlier, six month test of the system checked 8.5 million vehicles and identified over 100,000 violators (one of whom was using a phone and an iPad at the same time). Meanwhile, police have nabbed just 16,500 people so far this year for similar violations.

The 45 cameras, which include portable units, will cost around $88 million. The government said that it will allow exceptions for some phone use while driving, such as mounting it in a hands-free cradle, using it through Bluetooth, passing devices to passengers, and situations such as drive-through restaurant queues. However, the AP noted that drivers at red lights and in traffic jams will still be subject to fines.

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NSW Regional Roads Minister Paul Toole told ABC, “Independent modelling has shown that these cameras could prevent around 100 fatal and serious injury crashes over fives years.”

The National Roads and Motorists’ Association argued that the government should be transparent about the camera rollout, such as by posting signs warning that drivers may be monitored. But Constance told ABC that the surprise is part of the point.

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““We have to unfortunately use the element of surprise to get people to think ‘well, I could get caught at any time,’” Constance told the network. “I want behaviour to change and I want it changed immediately. It’s not about revenue—it’s about saving lives.”

Correction: A prior version of this article incorrectly referred to Sydney as the capital of Australia; it is the capital of New South Wales. We regret the error.

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Tom McKay

"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post