A six-month pilot programme has been launched in Australia with the intention of checking whether drivers are using mobile phones behind the wheel.
The scheme has already scanned over 8.5 million Australian drivers with the help of new AI-powered cameras in an attempt to make roads safer.
Could such a system work in the UK? Are there any ethical implications to consider?
How does the scheme work? Let’s get to grips with this ground-breaking use of technology:
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How it works
Cameras assisted by artificial intelligence take pictures of the drivers’ seat and the front passenger seat. An AI algorithm then reviews the image, analysing whether the driver is indeed holding or using a phone.
When the system “flags” a driver who it considers to be flouting the law, the photographic evidence is forwarded to human officials who are in a better position to confirm or deny whether the motorist has been caught red-handed.
Has it been successful?
Put simply, yes. During the launch months of the pilot scheme, Australian authorities managed to catch no less than 100,000 mobile phone-wielding drivers. Authorities in New South Wales, the area the pilot was focused on, now intend to roll out AI cameras across the entire state.
The aim of the government is to conduct 135 million mobile phone checks over the next five years, which is expected to prevent hundreds of serious accidents and fatalities on Australian roads every year.
While some might consider this an ambitious target, there’s no reason to suggest why the plan isn’t feasible.
The AI-equipped cameras have been built to operate even within the harshest of weather conditions, are robust enough to withstand vandalism, and can operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Australia’s mobile-phone detecting cameras is that they are expected to be deployed in both fixed positions as well as on top of mobile units – not unlike the UK’s current speed camera setup.
However, unlike in the UK, Australian citizens won’t be subject to warning signs.
The idea is that motorists won’t have time to stash their phones before entering a zone where mobile cameras are in operation, which will encourage drivers to completely eschew using their phones while behind the wheel.
While this may seem like an unfair tactic, the Road Minister for New South Wales, Andrew Constance, sees things differently: “We have to use the element of surprise to get people to realise ‘I could be caught at any time’. This is not about revenue – I want the behaviour to change. It’s about saving lives.”
Concerns have also been raised about data protection and privacy laws – specifically regarding what happens to the images once they have been taken.
Transport for New South Wales, the body in charge of the controversial scheme, has said that images, where drivers are not at fault, are almost always erased within 48 hours, without the need for a backup or hard copy elsewhere.
In addition to this, while the AI is designed to check out what’s going on within the confines of a personal vehicle, human operators will only ever get to view images that contain law-breaking incidents as decided by the computer system.
The inevitability of future UK deployment
One thing’s for certain: because the cameras have proven so successful down-under, UK drivers should expect to witness the implementation of similar technology in the near future. Many safety campaigners will welcome the use of AI mobile phone detectors to protect all road users and prevent young drivers from using phones behind the wheel. Young motorists in particular (those aged between 17-29) are twice as likely to use their phones while driving, in comparison to all other age groups.