The road accident toll in Australia during the 2017 holiday season was a huge disappointment to authorities, with 127 deaths in December alone, an increase of 25 per cent on last year. There were 42,000 patients hospitalised, which is equivalent to some 800 people seriously injured and 24 killed in accidents on our roads each week. The cost of such accidents to the economy is in the billions of dollars, but how many of those involved drivers distracted by mobile phones will no doubt be debated.

The world is fast becoming aware of the dangers and the drivers using mobiles for texting, talking, emailing or any other pursuit while driving a vehicle that causes deaths and injuries – driving itself being one of the most dangerous activities a person can undertake, without adding to the risks by being distracted by a mobile phone. That also means answering a call, text, email or taking selfies on Snapchat while driving way over the speed limit just to show their friends how irresponsible they are are all risky behaviours. For example, in January 2017, a 19-year-old Victorian teenage girl who ran off the road and crashed her car seconds after filming a Snapchat video lost her licence and was fined $2000.

The girl appeared in Warrnambool Magistrates’ Court on December 11th last year and apart from the fine, she was disqualified from driving for 16 months and had her P-PLate licence cancelled. In a post on Facebook, Victorian the police said the girl proved to be three times over the legal blood alcohol limit and during the crash she somehow branded her mobile phone with a Mazda logo.

US Personal Injury Lawyers’ response

Since 2016, personal injury lawyers, in the US at least, have been on the case, both, it seems, to turn the tide on deaths and injuries due to accidents caused by mobile phone distraction and no doubt to use the law to help solve the problem via litigation. To this end, many personal injury lawyers across America have created websites aimed at helping drivers to understand the laws and consequences of driving while distracted by mobile phones and in particular the dangers of the speed filter in the Snapchat app. The filter is used to show the speed someone is travelling at while taking selfies. The lawyers believe the danger lies in the fact that taking the selfies demands a lot of concentration – hence more distraction from driving – because the pictures disappear after they are viewed.

However, one US case brought in Griffin, Georgia, failed last year when the Judge dismissed the claim that the speed filter option in Snapchat was the cause of a highway crash that left a man brain damaged. In his ruling, the judge found that the US ‘Communications Decency Act’ gave the social media company immunity. The case was heard in January 2017 and resulted in Spalding County State Court Judge Josh Thacker finding that the claims against Snapchat were inadmissible under the immunity, or Good Samaritan clause in the Act. This Act states: ‘No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.’ The decision, which could be appealed, is seen by social media companies as a precedent for the whole product and mobile app industry.

The case was brought after Wentworth Maynard was left with serious brain injuries after a collision with another car. It was alleged that the young female driver of the other car was using the Snapchat filter while speeding at more than 160 km/h, and while thus distracted, she crashed into the car Maynard was driving. The female driver allegedly posted a Snapchat picture saying ‘lucky to be alive’ as she was transported to an ambulance.

The situation in Australia

In Victoria alone, 143 fines were issued to motorists who have had to cough up for almost 113,000 in fines for using a mobile phone while driving in the past three years, amounting to more than $40 million. The average fine for this offence is around $466. Some of these mobile phone offences occurred around school zones.

The NSW Government has extended a campaign called ‘Get Your Hand Off It’ to send the message to drivers about the dangers of using mobiles in the car while travelling on the roads. While it is difficult to find any real data relating to crashes caused by drivers using mobile phones, last year the then Western Australian Acting Premier Liza Harvey told the ABC that emergency service responders were tired of pulling people from car wrecks with mobile phones embedded in their bodies.

Queensland research released in February last year, revealed that about one in four road accidents in that state were caused by driver distraction, and that included the use of mobile phones. It also found that around 84 per cent of phone users owned a smartphone where they could access the Internet and social media which meant they were a potentially greater distraction to drivers. The research also quoted a NSW survey carried out on 415 drivers which revealed 68 per cent of them had read emails while operating a vehicle and 25 per cent had sent tweets or updated their status on Facebook. Those aged from 18 to 25 years were more likely to use the Internet while driving, four times as likely to send a text message, twice as likely to call someone and four times more likely to text, and they are more likely to read their emails. Twelve per cent of these drivers admitted to updating their Facebook status, and 14 per cent admitted to snapping a selfie and uploading it.

The laws in Australia on mobile phone use while driving

Generally, the rules across the states of Australia regarding the use of mobile phones while driving are the same, or similar. These are the rules in NSW:

If you are a learner, P1 and P2 driver or motorcyclist:

  • Learner, P1 and P2 licence holders are forbidden from using mobile phones while driving or riding a motorbike, full stop. This law means you can’t touch your phone while stopped at a traffic light or in a traffic jam. The only time you can use your phone in any way is if you park out of the line of traffic in a legal parking area.
  • Learner and P1 drivers and riders will be penalised for the illegal use of a mobile phone (you lose four demerit points) and this means they will have used up their demerit points and will likely be suspended from driving or riding for three months. P2 drivers and riders will lose one demerit point and be left with three points remaining if they are fined for the illegal use of a mobile phone while operating their vehicle.

Drivers and motorcycle riders on a full licence (also bicycle riders)

You CAN use your mobile phone while driving a vehicle or riding but ONLY if the device is:

  • Placed securely in a holder fixed securely, and as long as it doesn’t block or obscure you from clearly seeing the road.
  • As long as you can operate the phone and not touch it in any way.

You can use the mobile phone for audio, listening to music etc and as a navigation aid:

  • ONLY if the mobile is placed securely in a fixed holder and doesn’t obscure your view.

You CANNOT use your mobile phone in a vehicle if you are the driver or rider of a bicycle or motorcycle for anything else and that includes no:

  • Texting
  • Audio texting.

If you have to use your phone for any of these functions, you have to park your car so that it is out of the line of traffic.

You CANNOT use your mobile phone when stopped in a slow line of traffic or traffic jam, or if stopped at lights or intersections for:

  • Sending, composing or reading emails
  • Using social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat etc
  • Taking selfies, or any photographs
  • Sending video messages
  • Holding the mobile phone either in your hand, you lap, between your ear and shoulder.

Drivers are ONLY permitted to hold a mobile phone if they are passing it to a passenger.

L-Plate, P1 and P2 licensed

Any learner-driver on L-plates; those holding a P1 or P2 licence CANNOT use a mobile phone in any way while driving a vehicle or riding a motorcycle. This applies even if you are in a traffic jam, in slow traffic or stopped at a Stop sign or waiting for the traffic lights to change. To use your phone in any fashion, you have to be parked and safely out of the traffic lines.