One Australian state government has become the first in the world to implement a statewide camera program to automatically detect drivers using their cell phones.
The program began its rollout in the state of New South Wales on December 1 following a six-month trial earlier this year, which the government claims caught over 100,000 drivers. Similar technology has been tested in England and Saudi Arabia, but the NSW program marks the first time it has been implemented on a wide scale.
There won’t be any signs signalling the cameras’ presence, either. “We have to unfortunately use the element of surprise to get people to think ‘well, I could get caught at any time’,” said NSW Roads Minister Andrew Constance. “I want behaviour to change and I want it changed immediately.”
The cell phone detection cameras can’t actually identify people using their phones in real time. Instead, it takes photographs of every single vehicle that strays across its lens, using artificial intelligence to analyse them later. If the software detects a probable offender, the image is then verified by an employee before a penalty notice is sent out.
Drivers will only receive warnings for the first three months the cell phone detection cameras are in operation. After that, drivers who are caught will incur a $344 fine ($457 in school zones), as well as losing five demerit points from their driver’s licence.
According to the NSW government, “strict controls are in place to ensure images captured by the system are securely stored and managed.” If the AI doesn’t detect any suspected phone use in a photo it is deleted without any human seeing it, usually within an hour. The Guardian reports that if the AI does detect potential phone use but it cannot be verified by a human, the photo is deleted within 48 hours.
Still, having your photo taken without your consent while simply driving to work is likely to make a few people uneasy. Legal experts also have issues with the program, concerned the court system may be flooded with challenges and that proposed new laws dealing with the cameras set “a dangerous precedent.”
Under these laws, any object a photographed driver holds will be “presumed to be a mobile phone held by the driver for the purposes of a mobile phone use offence.” Drivers will therefore have to prove the object they were handling likely wasn’t a phone, fighting against a presumption of guilt rather than innocence.
Any object a photographed driver holds will be “presumed to be a mobile phone.”
“[It] promotes an acceptance of the proposition that it is appropriate to create fundamentally unfair and fictional presumptions in order to make it easier to prosecute an offence,” Michael Mantaj from the Law Society of NSW .
Further, Mantaj stated that the presumption of guilt was “likely to erode public confidence in the use of cameras as a means of enforcement of traffic law because it will feed into the already existing cynicism in some parts of the community that cameras … are more about revenue raising than public safety.”
However, NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Michael Corboy considered the reversal of onus “critical to the deterrence factor,” a view supported by Hugh McMaster of the Australian Road Transport Industrial Organisation.
“We have no problem with the reverse onus of proof,” McMaster told the committee. “We say that because the technology has obviously proven itself to be effective in detecting what somebody is doing in a motor vehicle.”
As useful as it is, technology has proven itself far from foolproof time and time again, while humans demonstrate too much faith in algorithms. Reversing the onus of proof is always a dangerous proposition, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out.
The NSW government intends to expand the cell phone detection camera system over the next three years, aiming for over 135 million checks annually by 2023. There are 19.5 million registered motor vehicles across Australia as of 2019.