In Australia, cameras and A.I. are identifying drivers using their phones while at the wheel

Key Points
  • Distracted driving is a serious issue that can have fatal consequences. 
  • The scheme being deployed in Australia uses high-definition cameras and artificial intelligence. 
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Authorities in New South Wales, Australia, are to introduce a cell phone detection camera program by the end of this year.

The announcement, made over the weekend, follows a six-month pilot which took place between January and June. During that trial, technology supplied by a firm called Acusensus was able to check 8.5 million vehicles and determined that over 100,000 drivers had been using their phones illegally.

It's envisioned that after starting this year, the program will expand to carry out 135 million vehicle checks each year by 2023.

According to New South Wales' Centre for Road Safety, the system uses high-definition cameras to take images of all vehicles' front rows. Artificial intelligence is used to "automatically review images and detect offending drivers."

Authorized personnel are used to verify images that the system picks out. The Centre for Road Safety said that "strict controls" were in place to make sure that images taken by the system were managed and stored securely.

For the first three months of the scheme, drivers caught using their phones will be sent warning letters. After this, the penalty will be five demerit points and an AUD 344 ($233) fine, which rises to AUD 457 in school zones.

In an email to CNBC Wednesday Neil Greig, policy and research director at U.K. road safety charity IAM RoadSmart, expressed the organization's support for the decision by authorities in New South Wales to "use technology to combat the problems created by technology."

"These detectors are still in their infancy but it is clear they have growing potential to target hands held, and perhaps even ultimately hands free, use of mobile phones and give the police a reliable method of education and enforcement," Greig added. "As drivers come to realize that their phone use can be monitored and the information used against them in court they are less likely to risk it."

Greig went on to state that artificial intelligence and new technology offered the chance to "really up the fear of detection that normally only comes with a high traffic police presence."

Distracted driving is a serious issue. In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has described it as "any activity that diverts attention from driving".

Among other things, this can include talking or texting on a phone, eating or drinking while at the wheel, and even talking to other people in the vehicle. It's a behavior that can have fatal consequences. The NHTSA says that in 2017, 3,166 people were killed in crashes that involved distracted drivers.

As technology develops, new systems are being introduced to try and improve the safety of vehicles. In March 2019, for example, Volvo Cars announced it would install in-car cameras and sensors to monitor drivers for signs of intoxication and distraction.

The firm said the technology would be used to monitor drivers and, when needed, enable the car "to intervene if a clearly intoxicated or distracted driver does not respond to warning signals and is risking an accident involving serious injury or death."

Actions the car could take include limiting speed to slowing down and then parking the car in a safe place. Installation of the technology will start in the early 2020s.