Australia rolls out tech to catch people using cell phones while driving

Key Points
  • As the cars we drive become increasingly sophisticated, the tech that underpins them poses unique challenges.
  • Authorities in New South Wales, Australia, have launched a detection camera program aiming to catch drivers using their phones at the wheel. 
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Authorities in New South Wales, Australia, have launched a detection camera program that aims to stop people illegally using their smartphone while driving.

During the first three months of the new system, which went live Sunday, drivers caught by the technology will be sent a warning letter.

After this, offenders will be given five demerit points and a fine of 344 Australian dollars, which equates to around $235. The fine rises to 457 Australian dollars in school zones. It is illegal to hold and use a cellphone while driving or riding a vehicle in New South Wales.

According to New South Wales' Centre for Road Safety, the system utilizes both fixed and transportable cameras. It also uses artificial intelligence 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 says that "strict controls" are in place to make sure that images taken by the system are managed and stored securely.

"Independent modeling has shown these cameras could prevent around 100 fatal and serious injury crashes over five years," Bernard Carlon, the executive director of transport for New South Wales' Centre for Road Safety, said in a statement at the end of last week.

"There is strong community support for more enforcement, with 80% of people surveyed supporting the use of detection cameras to stop illegal mobile phone use," Carlon added.

The rollout of the scheme follows a 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.

As the cars we drive become increasingly sophisticated, the technology that underpins them poses a unique set of challenges.

"Currently, technology is more likely to create distractions in vehicles than it is to combat it," Alain Dunoyer, SBD Automotive's head of autonomous research and consulting, said in a statement sent to CNBC via email.

"These days, cars have a shopping list of features which has led to tasks that were historically quite simple becoming drastically more complicated and distracting," he added.

"Through biometric testing, we have found that these once simple tasks, like changing the radio station or increasing the temperature, can now demand a level of a driver attention similar to that of negotiating a complex junction."

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

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. The NHTSA says that in 2017, 3,166 people were killed in crashes that involved distracted drivers.