The mobile phone rules that could cost drivers hefty fines

Distracted driving has become a major killer on our roads since the arrival of the smartphone.

The little devices, and the apps they house, are designed to constantly be grabbing our attention and for many of us the temptation is too great.

A 2011 Government survey of motorists found 59 per cent reported using their mobile phone while driving, with 31 per cent of drivers reading and 14 per cent sending text messages on the road.

But fines are increasingly steep for this infringement in states across Australia and you could even be doing something wrong without knowing it.

While the law slightly varies across states, you are only allowed to use a GPS like Google Maps on your smartphone if it is in a cradle device, and it might have to be commercially produced. And the cradle must not obscure your view of the road.

That means you can be fined for having your phone sitting in your lap, handling it or simply having it unlocked on the passenger seat next to you.

Hands-free devices like this one are required to be touching your mobile phone while driving.
Hands-free devices like this one are required to be touching your phone behind the wheel. Source: Getty Images, file

In NSW, Victoria and South Australia the cradle must be commercially produced if you’re using a GPS app, making a call or playing music. However in Victoria and South Australia, learner and P1 drivers can't operate phones at all. Learner and provisional drivers are also restricted from using phones at all while driving in the Northern Territory as well.

While you’re on the right side of the law if the phone is sitting in a cradle or hands-free device, that doesn’t really mitigate the greater risk of a crash.

A study conducted in Western Australia in 2005 showed using a mobile phone while driving increased the likelihood of a crash four-fold, irrespective of whether a hands-free device was being used – and that was before the iPhone came along. However a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in the US this year found no added risk for drivers who have a hands-free phone conversation while driving.

Tips to avoid on-road phone temptation

If you don’t trust yourself not to look at that next text message alert when you’re behind the wheel and don’t feel like locking your phone in the glove box, there is something else you could do if you own an iPhone.

In a bid to tackle the issue of distracted driving, Apple recently rolled out a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” feature.

When you turn it on, it detects when you are driving, and text messages and other notifications are silenced or limited. You can, however, ask Siri to read replies to you.

Incoming calls are also only allowed when the phone is connected to a car Bluetooth system or a hands-free accessory.

Screenshots of the 'Do Not Disturb While Driving' feature on the iPhone.
You can get your phone to automatically reply telling people you're busy driving. Source: Supplied

Google’s Pixel phones have a similar feature while a free Driver Detective app for Android phones does the same thing: It detects when you are in a moving vehicle and toggles Do Not Disturb on, silencing alerts for the duration of the drive and resuming normal operation after you exit the vehicle.

Fines growing amid crackdown on phone use

In June, Queensland’s state government announced a proposal that could see drivers fined $1000 and have their licence suspended for a second offence if they’re caught using their mobile in the car.

Before the Queensland government’s announcement, South Australia had the previous highest fine for mobile phone usage behind the wheel. The state’s fine is currently $554 and motorists will receive three demerit points.

A driver seen holding a phone to his ear while driving.
A driver pictured driving and using a phone during a trial of the cameras. Source: Transport NSW

In NSW, the penalty for illegally using a phone while driving is $344 and five demerit points.

The Northern Territory this year announced it will increase its fine from $250 to $500, while drivers will cop three demerit points for the offence.

In Western Australia, motorists will receive a fine of $400 and three demerit points.

Meanwhile those who are nabbed in Tasmania face a fine of $336 and three demerit points.

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