Motor Mouth: What you need to know about Australia’s cell phone detection cameras

Motor Mouth: What you need to know about Australia’s cell phone detection cameras
In this file photo, traffic is gridlocked due to the closure of the Western Distributor because of a fire at Baranagroo on March 12, 2014 in Sydney, Australia.Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

Motor Mouth takes a look at how the system works, how effective the program will be, and not surprisingly (because it’s the government), the big whack of cash they’re going to raise.

Similar in concept to photo radar and red light cameras, Australia’s cell phone detection cameras use automatic high definition lens to peer inside your car. What’s different about iPhone detectors, however, is that the resultant images are then reviewed by artificial intelligence (AI) to ascertain whether you have a cell phone — or, at this initial stage, anything remotely iPhone-ish — in your hands while driving. If Big Brother determines there’s a possibility that you were indeed texting/surfing/hands-on calling, your file is then passed off to a human inspector who then confirms that the object AI detected you were holding — or indeed, under Australian law, just touching — was indeed a communications device. If so, the owner of the car is automatically found guilty.

What’s unique about that the cell phone detection cameras is their resolution and their location. Unlike photo radar that simply need to be able to read a license plate, cell phone detection cameras have to be of high-enough resolution that AI can estimate that an iPhone was indeed in use. Said resolution also have to be sufficient that the image can be blown up so a human operator can unequivocally determine, again, that the object the drive is holding is a communication device.

And, because the cameras have to peer into the cabin at a downward angle to catch said illicit communications, they’re all set up on overpasses. Indeed, according to, because they have to capture photos into every vehicle travelling under said overpass, there’s one camera per lane. Which means that while the government claims the program’s goal is increased safety …

, the new cameras are “a component of the overall strategy to achieve the Government’s target of reducing road fatalities and serious injuries by 30 per cent by 2021 (compared to 2008-2010 levels).” Sounds laudable, doesn’t it? Especially when it cites statistics that, in New South Wales alone, there have been 182 casualty crashes “involving a driver/rider using a hand-held mobile phone” in the last seven years. Horrible, right?

Driving Debate: Is it really ‘distracted driving’ when your phone is dead?

Except that those crashes resulted in just 13 deaths. Yes, two per year. Digging a little deeper into the government’s calculations, it turns out that, in a pilot project conducted over six month prior to the Dec. 1 official implementation, 1.8 per cent of drivers were found to using their cell phones while driving. Now factor in that Australia’s mandarins say that the government’s goal is to take 135 million photos per year. Do the math and that’s almost 2.5 million offences per year. Keep your calculator out and multiply that by the AUD$344 (AUD$457 in school zones) fine. That’s $835 million Down Under bucks, or $760 million in Loonies. Per year. Am I the only cynic wondering what is really motivating politicians — saving just two lives or three-quarters of a billion dollars?

Not only does Australia hope to take $135 million cell phone-detecting pictures every year, within five years it hopes to have photographed every driver in the country. Revenue New South Wales says it has “strict obligations to ensure the personal information of NSW road users is protected in accordance with statutory requirements,” though hacking into government systems seems like child’s play theses days — Baltimore and Nunavut computers were ransomwared just this year, to name but a few.

Or you kid. Like all such automatic fine systems, the problematic legality here is that there is no proof that the registered owner of the vehicle is behind the wheel; the angle of the camera makes it difficult to capture the faces of all but the shortest driver. Such “guilty until proven innocent” jurisprudence, of course, rankles constitutional experts and civil rights activists.

The Australian government’s solution — and guys, if this doesn’t convince you that Big Brotherism is truly upon us, nothing will — is to let you rat out someone else. Officially, Australian legalese calls it “nominating” as in, “the legislation allows the registered operator (owner) of the vehicle to nominate the person responsible for the offence.”

Methinks “Honey, were you driving my car last Thursday?” just became grounds for divorce.
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