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Can you be fined if your passenger is using a mobile phone?
Updated 11 Feb 2020
I have a feeling that a few people may be slightly surprised by this answer but to put it simply, yes, you can.
Each state and territory in Australia imposes a fine for mobile phone use whilst driving. There are no surprises here, but there has been some activity in the mobile phone usage space over the last few months.
At the start of February 2020, Queensland upped their penalty for mobile phone use whilst driving to $1000 and 4 demerit points. That’s a fair whack.
Late 2019 saw New South Wales dot their state with new mobile phone detection cameras, and if the reports are anything to go by, they’re definitely earning their keep.
So mobile phones are now a hot topic. What can you do, what can’t you do?
A common misconception about mobile phone use in the car is that you can only land yourself in hot water if you, as the driver, are holding or interacting with your phone whilst driving.
But this isn’t always the case, at least in some states. Being distracted by a mobile phone, whether you’re using it or someone else, is a fineable offence, and it kinda makes sense.
If your passenger is watching a movie or on a video call, and it’s taking your attention off the road, that’s just as bad as if you were shooting a text message off from your lap right?
So which states will fine you if your passenger’s phone is distracting you?
Driving in Queensland or the Northern Territory can see you fined anywhere between $500 to $2669 if you’re caught looking at a passenger’s phone. In Queensland, if you’re a learner or P1 licence holder under 25, your passengers cannot use the phone’s loudspeaker.
New South Wales law enforcement will hit you with $344 and 3 points if your driving and your passenger is using a mobile where the display is visible to the driver. You can add another $113 and 1 demerit point to that if you’re caught in a school zone.
South Australia is pretty much the same as NSW in terms of what you can be fined for. The penalty, however, is $169 with no demerit points.
Western Australia is on similar terms, with a fine and loss of demerit points the penalty for being caught.
In Victoria, there isn’t a specific law which says you can’t be distracted by a passenger’s phone. But there is a law that says you cannot drive a vehicle that has a ‘visual display unit’ where the screen is visible to the driver in the normal driving position.
A mobile phone is categorised as a visual display unit, even if it’s held by a passenger, and the maximum fine for this is over $1,600!
The law also says that a passenger cannot interfere with a driver’s control of the vehicle or obstruct their view. We’ll take a bet that shoving a phone screen in front of the drivers face will probably cop a fine of about $500.
In the ACT, according to the Australian Federal Police, the answer to “Can my passengers use their mobiles while I’m driving?” is simply ‘Yes’.
That seems pretty straightforward then, right? Not quite. They probably should put an asterisk there, because as a driver you can be fined $245 if caught driving with a distracting TV or video display unit.
Remember how we said that a mobile phone is a video display unit?
The Northern Territory is pretty specific about it. You’re not allowed to drive a car with a visual display unit in the vehicle that has a part of the screen visible to the driver.
Specifically, Australian Road Rule 299, where if your front seat passenger is holding a mobile phone where the screen can be seen by the driver, the driver is in breach of Rule 299 (1). It doesn’t matter whether the phone is being used as a drivers aid.
Tasmanian law specifically states that a driver is not allowed to hold or touch any part of a mobile phone whilst driving. There’s nothing that says they cannot view the screen of a phone being held by a passenger.
Do any of these laws ban your passenger from using their mobile phone at all? No. They mostly just warn you that if the screen of the mobile is visible to the driver to the point it could become a distraction, you could land yourself in hot water.
On weekdays Rowan can be found in the AutoGuru office, driving content and growth with the rest of the marketing team.
On weekends you’ll probably find him in the garage with his father restoring a 1958 Ford Star Model Customline or enjoying a cruise through the Gold Coast hinterland on his Suzuki GSX-R600.
Despite his passion for being behind the wheel (or handlebars), he looks forward to the day when he can commute to work in his own driverless car.