Early in 2019, police authorities in Australia and the Netherlands announced the use of smartphone speed cameras. And now Germany’s first federal state is following suit in the fight against mobile phone criminals behind the wheel.
Gregor Hebermell, Thomas Harloff
The use of smartphones while driving with the engine running is not only prohibited in Germany – due to the high risk of distraction, many countries penalize this type of phone use. When chasing cell phone offenders, the police no longer want to rely on random strikes – now smartphone speed cameras are used. The Australian state of New South Wales has been blinking on drivers picking up their smartphones while driving since 2019. Shortly thereafter, special cameras also arrived in Europe – the first to use them were Dutch police.
German authorities have also taken a long time to use speed cameras to take action against mobile phone users while driving. But on June 1, 2022, the time has come: With the Rhineland-Palatinate, the first federal state will operate the matching technology — as usual as part of a pilot project. “In 2021 alone, there were 1,001 accidents caused by distraction, among other things due to cell phone use while driving,” says State Home Secretary Roger Lewentz (SPD). “With the new camera, we expect another increase in road safety.”
First in Trier, then in Mainz
Matthias Emmerich adds: “We have to meet the current challenges in road safety with the latest technology if we want to reduce the number of traffic deaths to zero.” Since the summer of 2021, the Police Council has headed a task force at the Trier Police Headquarters dealing with the availability and use of technical devices for the detection of such violations. The technology will also be used there first before being tested for another three-month field trial by police headquarters in Mainz. After the six-month period, the results will be analyzed.
People from the Rhineland-Palatinate chose the Monocam camera system, which is also used by the Dutch police. It works in a similar way to well-known distance and speed monitoring systems and monitors the flow of traffic from an elevated location. Just like the Australian and Dutch speed cameras, the Rhineland-Palatinate cameras also work with so-called artificial intelligence (AI). Artificial intelligence algorithms sort all the images in which the driver does not even interact with a smartphone. On the other hand, the camera turns on when it detects the mobile phone and the corresponding hand position. Then the officials personally check and evaluate them. In the first test run, the Dutch police used two movable flash units that also work at night thanks to an infrared light.
The authorities of the Rhineland-Palatinate confirm that the monocam system was examined by the State Commissioner for Data Protection and Information Security and found to be harmless. The Rhineland-Palatinate letter did not mention the possibility of facial recognition; The police in the Netherlands also refrained from doing so. On the one hand, this is a problem for data protection reasons, and on the other hand, the technology required for this does not appear to be mature yet. During a test run in New York in the spring of 2019, the system did not recognize a single face due to the high speed of passing cars.
Sanctions are not enough to deter
Mobile phone offenders face a maximum fine of €100 in Germany and one point in Flensburg. Fines in the Netherlands are 240 euros. In New South Wales it is 344 Australian dollars (currently equivalent to about 229 euros). But sanctions do not appear to be sufficient deterrence. That’s why authorities in the Australian state of New South Wales are tired of drivers picking up their mobile phones while driving. In Australia’s most populous state, the number of accidents caused by a driver getting distracted using a smartphone has risen. According to experts, using a smartphone behind the wheel increases the likelihood of an accident by four times.
That’s why Andrew Constance announced in 2019 that he would use special cameras in the fight against targeting smartphone users. The Minister of Transport said that using a mobile phone behind the wheel is equivalent to drinking and driving. That’s why police in New South Wales deployed a total of 45 monitoring systems across the state by December 2019 – some for stationary operation, others for portable use in variable locations.
These systems contain two cameras. One of the cameras films the number plate, while the second camera flashes through the windshield of the car from above, creating images that show the driver’s hands. Algorithms known as “artificial intelligence” in the files are supposed to know if the driver has a smartphone in his hands – traffic police officers only take a closer look at these images.
NSW wants to double inspections
NSW Police had previously tested two permanently installed monitoring systems for a period of six months. The authority used it to inspect 8.5 million cars, with 100,000 cellphone violators arrested. One driver even used his phone and tablet at the same time, while another allowed the passenger to steer while using two phones. By 2023, the NSW government wants to carry out 135 million inspections annually – the state has 5.2 million registered cars. The government has calculated that increased camera surveillance allegedly prevents up to 100 deaths or serious injuries from smartphone misuse each year.
A spokesperson for the Australian Traffic Club’s National Road and Motorists Association criticized the introduction that the monitoring was carried out without warning. While the club welcomes penalties for drivers who get distracted by phones, they would like a warning before the controls. In Australia, there are advance warnings for speed measurements. In Australia, drivers are not allowed to pick up their cell phones while driving – with two exceptions: they give a passenger’s smartphone or use the cell phone to pay while driving with the engine running.
Note: In the slideshow we give you special creative excuses from traffic violators who have been caught.
Definitely: I see drivers talking on the phone or texting every day.
No, we already have more than enough monitoring.
Direct use of smartphones behind the wheel leads to distraction and frequently leads to serious accidents. However, this does not prevent some road users from picking up the phone while driving, nor the ever-increasing penalties for the infraction. So the police are arming themselves with special camera technology to deal with the problem. The pilot project in Rhineland-Palatinate will run for six months. You can be curious about the results.