Victoria's unenforceable iPhone law

“The law,” according to Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist, “is a ass — a idiot”. In Dickensian times, as now, the law often failed to take into account changing circumstances, subtleties and nuances that might seem obvious to a reasonable person with a bit of common sense.

Unfortunately the law rarely has such suppleness, precisely because common sense is hardly common. If people could generally be counted on to do the right thing by each other we’d hardly need laws at all.

This coming November, it will become illegal in Victoria to drive with your iPhone acting as a GPS unit, even if it’s in an appropriate hands-free cradle.

The new law states that it is legal to use a mobile phone while driving as long as it is in a commercially-designed cradle and can be operated without touching it, but “all other uses” are prohibited. Meanwhile you are also permitted to use a “driver’s aid” (such as a GPS unit) but only if it is built into the vehicle or “secured in a commercially-designed holder, which is fixed to the vehicle”.

Got that? All seems pretty straightforward, except …

What if you’ve got an iPhone running a GPS application, sitting in a commercially-designed holder fixed to the vehicle? On the one hand that should be OK since it’s a driver’s aid, but on the other hand it’s a mobile phone that you’re employing for something other than mobile phoning, and that surely comes under the banner of “all other uses”. OK, now I’m confused.

I’ll get in early with the disclaimer: I am not a lilywhite perfect driver, and I’ve had my share of trouble with the law. Only recently I was pulled over and ticketed (in Sydney) for not having signaled long enough when changing lanes. Not that I didn’t signal — I didn’t signal for long enough. Apparently you have to be blinking for five seconds before changing lanes, even if it’s the middle of the night and the only cars on the road are you and a bored cop you didn’t happen to notice who has nothing better to do than drive around counting “one Mississippi, two Miississippi, three Mississippi … got one”.

More out of ennui and a lack of time to go to court I just took that one on the chin, though now I’m regretting having done so.

A few weeks ago I didn’t notice that 2:30pm had rolled around and I drove at nearly 60km/h in a school zone. Now, that one’s fair enough of course — I clearly wasn’t paying full attention to what I was doing, and school zones are there for a reason. I should have been doing less than 40km/h. Fair enough, I’ll wear it.

Of course that’s double demerits for speeding in a school zone, so between those two offences I’ve lost seven points on my licence. You only get twelve, so before I head out on the road anywhere I want to be very sure I’m not going to do something inadvertent that costs me any more.

Naturally, I phoned VicRoads for clarification on what the new laws mean. The person I spoke to (who asked not to be named or quoted directly and told me all of this was background — I shall call her “Deep Throat”) said that you can’t use your iPhone as a GPS device because that is not its primary function. It’s mainly a phone, you see, so using it for anything other than phone calls falls under the “all other uses” provision, just as I thought.

OK, fair enough. But what about an iPod touch, which is visually almost indistinguishable from an iPhone but cannot be used as a phone? Well, an iPod touch is a different thing according to “DT”, and as long as it’s in a commercially-designed cradle, positioned appropriately (on the windscreen or the dashboard to the right of the steering wheel) you ought to be OK.

But aren’t the police going to end up pulling a lot of people over because they think they’re using iPhones when in fact they’re using iPod touches?

Well, said “DT”, I guess that’s something that would have to be decided by the courts. I hope Victoria’s traffic court system isn’t as overloaded as NSW’s, or I don’t think they’ll be too happy about having the burden of discerning between an iPhone and an iPod lumped on.

I should point out that at this point “DT” made clear that she probably wasn’t the person I needed to speak to, that she would get someone higher-up to contact me and clarify all of this. I should also point out that VicRoads isn’t picking on Apple, but the law applies to all of the new smartphones that have added GPS functionality.

But of course that raises the question of dedicated GPS units that have added phone functionality, such as the Mio DigiWalker. Does the law unfairly advantage them because their “primary function” is GPS? Would it be illegal to make a phone call using one of those when it’s in its commercially-designed cradle? Would Apple be well-advised to release a version of the iPhone called “iGPS” that’s identical in every way except for the name printed on the back?

And what if I’ve placed my iPhone in “Airplane Mode” so that it can’t receive a phone call, effectively rendering it identical to an iPod touch? One for the courts, I guess.

The purpose of the law, as VicRoads points out, is to reduce the distractions drivers encounter with these devices. Anything that takes the driver’s attention away from the road and other road users is a bad thing, and that much is plainly obvious even if there weren’t very solid statistics to back it up (and there are). The simple fact is that even now there are still idiots who think holding a phone up to your ear or writing text messages while driving are perfectly OK activities, so the law has to step in where common sense fails.

The problem with the law as it currently stands (or will in November) is that having a phone in a cradle is fine and having a dedicated GPS in a cradle is fine, but having a single device that can do both is not — two devices are surely more of a distraction than one. (Not to mention you’ve probably also got a dedicated sound system and other doo-dads already in there.) I imagine — I do not know — that the law was created in response to drivers telling police “oh no officer I wasn’t making a phone call, I was using my iPhone as a GPS”. But the way it’s structured this can now be replaced with “oh no officer, I wasn’t using it as a GPS, I was making a phone call”.

New laws should, theoretically, make enforcement simpler for police by clarifying where the lines are drawn. This law does the opposite, drawing extra, seemingly arbitrary, lines for police and the courts to deal with.

My suggestion: rather than fighting back the tide of devices that can do multiple things, embrace their simplicity and their reduction in the number and nature of distractions taking drivers’ attention from the road. The law should simply state that such a device must be operable without touching it while driving, and preferably without having to look at it.

Back to Mr Bumble, “the worst I wish the law is that his eye be opened by experience”.

[Note: A representative from VicRoads did call me back, but at a time when I was unable to take any notes. When she calls me back again I will update this article with her answers to my questions.]

Read VicRoads web page describing the new law.

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