The fine in Victoria for driving while using a mobile phone has increased to $226. I doubt this will significantly alter driver behaviour because drivers know their chances of getting caught are very low. Police cannot stop and fine everyone they see driving while phoning or many would barely get 1km from their station during a shift.

I agree with the fines, but the government needs to fix the bottleneck that limits prosecutions – the difficulty of collecting evidence of offences and the consequent scarcity of evidence collected that can be used to prosecute offenders.

I have a simple, elegant and extremely effective solution to this problem. The plan is to build incentives to encourage the collection of valid legal evidence by citizens who would provide this to the Police.

The Victorian Police would build a simple website that is the front end to a data collection system. Users would create accounts and add their contact and bank account details. The site would function as a photo and video upload site with a database that collects data in a series of fields. The site would initially be private and not publish any of the data it collects.

Users would take photos or videos of offending drivers while safely standing on the footpath or while being passengers in other vehicles, particularly trams (which provide a perfectly elevated point of view of car drivers). Users will upload their visual evidence, note the date, time, location and vehicle registration (which must also be clearly visible in the evidence). They would also plot it on an integrated map in the upload form.

Administrators would assess the submitted evidence and accept or reject submissions based on whether they included sufficient evidence as required by the courts, just as photos from speed cameras are assessed. Accepted submissions would be automatically paid a cut of the fine, perhaps 10% or $22, electronically into their bank accounts. That’s a lot of money for a few minutes work taking photos and uploading them to a website. It would provide a strong incentive to contribute.

Many of the unsuccessful submissions would still record genuine offences, but would not have the required quality of evidence (not showing the driver’s face, or not showing the registration plate). Only a minority of posts are likely to be useless and these could be easily deleted.

Two significant results would be achieved. First, evidence collection and prosecutions would massively increase. Revenue would increase and more than pay for the site and the staff to process the submissions. The likelihood of being caught would increase significantly and this would function as a powerful deterrent to future offending.

Second, Police would be developing a powerful demographic and statistical database of offence behaviour. By using vehicle registrations or some other unique identifier, the database could be matched with existing records of driving offences and other driver demographic and behaviour data.

Data mining techniques could find patterns of times, places, vehicle types and driver types most likely to offend, such as male truck drivers in industrial areas, or female hatchback drivers in fashion precincts. This data could be used to more finely target driver education and safety campaigns to increase their effectiveness.

Heat maps could be published showing dangerous areas where mobile phone offenses are most common, providing an additional warning for other drivers. Time maps could show the hours of the day when offending increases and decreases.

This is only the start. I would add a second level of web 2.0 sophistication by using the database to publish a public website that names and shames repeat offenders. Once a prosecution is logged as completed for a repeat offender, the driver’s details along with the visual evidence of their offense could be published on the site.

A social network aspect could evolve whereby contributors could comment on and vote on each others successes. Participants could gain status by being recognised for gaining the most prosecutions in their area. They could also be rewarded with bonuses for catching dangerous repeat offenders.

Site viewers could browse by location and see who in their street or neighborhood is a dangerous driver. The social pressure of being publicly shamed would be an additional deterrent to offending.

My idea is simple, efficient and affordable. Its components work together to build mutually reinforcing behaviours. The incentives are in all the right places. Because of its elegant simplicity, it is likely that the police and the government will never adopt it. They prefer the familiarity of failure over the potential for success offered by radical innovation.

When I pitched a social network idea to Qantas a year ago they completely ignored me and didn’t even send me a bland rejection letter. The problem is all the decision makers are middle aged technophobic suits with no imagination. I’ve sent my idea to the Police, the TAC and the Police minister and I will update this post if or when I receive their responses.

Update 15 January 2009: kudos to the Victoria Police for being the first government agency to respond to my letter detailed below, which I sent a month ago. They have provided a detailed three page response to my proposal, which of course they are not going to implement, but they have analysed the ideas and researched the legal implications.

There are some practical legal limitations, such as the potential for witnesses to have to give evidence in court to support the photos or videos they would provide as evidence of crimes committed by the scum who drive while using mobile phones. Some laws would need to be changed to allow the process I have described to be implemented.

Unfortunately, there also seems to be a lack of imagination or willingness to investigate the ways information and communications technologies could be implemented to improve road safety. The TAC and the minister for Police have not even sent me a superficial acknowledgement letter. Well done Victoria Police.

Update 23 January 2009: I have now received a response from the minister for Police and emergency services. They beat the TAC (I still have not recieved a response from them). The first page of their page and a half letter repeats the government propagand about its road safety achievements and does not address my letter until the last two paragraphs on the second page. I hate bureaucratic babble. Fail. Boring.

The dumbest thing they write is:

You may not be aware that is is already possible for members of the public to report offenses to police and to assist the prosecution of such matters by providing a sworn statement to police or providing other relevant evidence, such as photos, video or other captured images.

Of course I know I can report offences and provide evidence. Thanks for assuming I’m stupid and for stating the obvious. The problem the government and the police completely fail to acknowledge is how tedious, time consuming and difficult it is to provide statements and supply visual evidence. My proposal aims to make it easy to electronically submit evidence to the police. Reducing the disincentives to contributing should result in more evidence being submitted. These middle aged morons in suits will never understand…

Update 10 February 2009: I finally received a response from the TAC dated 5 February. A perfunctory two short paragraphs. Fail.

Update 23 July 2009: thanks for nothing Victoria Police. You reject my idea then steal the core of it – to use social networking to embarrass driving offenders. See this Age article:

As part of a three-day road safety blitz starting today, Deputy Chief Commissioner Ken Lay will ‘tweet’ boozy breath-test readings and details of cars caught speeding to discourage other young drivers from engaging in the same dangerous behaviour.


prosecuting mobile phone drivers

3 thoughts on “prosecuting mobile phone drivers

  • 20 December 2008 at 5:24 pm

    interesting idea – i like it. but as you say, its elegance, simplicity & openness will be unlikely to take root in the suit-mentality in govt or police :(. i’ve thought about similar ‘dob-in’ schemes in the past related to other dangerous driving behaviour (after calling the ph# on a “we value safe driving…” sticker on the back of a company car, and finding it disconnected), but the practicality of collecting useful evidence is even harder than for cellphone-drivers.

    as for basket-case Qantas, this year even more than last i think their attention is on “more important things”. add that to Boomer mentality, and, well…

  • 25 July 2009 at 5:19 pm

    I find this idea interesting but repulsive. Repulsive because if the idea were to take off where would it end. Governments everywhere but most especially repressive governments everywhere have always wanted the citizens to dob each other in. To be able to turn states informer, with such a low barrier of entry would surely lead to mission creep. Today it would be using a mobile tomorrow who knows what we would be encouraged to inform on. Already we have the slightly creepy tourism hotline, but if your proposal were to be implemented where would this end. What would society look like.

    Sure talking and driving is bad, as a mostly pedestrian it scares me. But I seriously wonder if this crime is as harmful to society as what you are suggesting as a remedy. Turning everyone who has a phone and a grudge into a potential state stoolie is not representative of the sort of society I want to live in.

    Pervasive surveillance is a fact of life, extending pervasive surveillance to all of the citizenry seems terribly 1984ish to me. I fear that in the dystopian future that you propose not only will Big Brother be watching you but little brother as well.

    • 25 July 2009 at 5:32 pm

      Repressive governments use surveillance to persecute free speech and victimless adult consenting behaviour that such states oppose, such as casual sex and recreational drug use. These social behaviours are fundamentally different to deliberately negligent or dangerous behaviour that has negative consequences for others, such as being distracted by mobile phones while driving and causing accidents. Your straw man argument conflating these two fundamentally different circumstances is not persuasive.


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