Driver alert: is it illegal to use GPS navigation on your smartphone? (updated)

We look at what the Australian Road Rules and state laws say about using GPS applications on your mobile phone

GPS navigation using mobile phones, smartphones and even some personal media players is nothing new. Thanks to built-in GPS receivers and software, these devices can guide you to your destination using maps that are downloaded on the go or included on the device. With the inclusion of text-to-speech and traffic information features, mobile phones have taken a bite out of the dedicated GPS device market.

The National Transport Commission (NTC) made an amendment to the Australian Road Rules in February this year that changes how you can use GPS navigation devices and applications in your car.

Australian Road Rules pertaining to the use of dedicated GPS units will remain unchanged. However, the regulations governing the use of GPS applications on a mobile phone have been updated in the amendment — in particular in regard to holding, looking at or listening to a mobile phone when driving a motor vehicle.

Rule 300 (PDF) of the Australian Road Rules — “Use of Mobile Phones” — states that drivers cannot use a mobile phone other than to make or receive calls using a hands-free accessory. Drivers in Australia are not allowed to hold the phone either, so this means the mobile phone should be mounted on your dashboard, or located a safe distance away from the driver. The Australian Road Rules specifically prohibit the use of the mobile phone for text and video messaging, e-mail and Internet access.

The Australian Road Rules aren’t so clear when it comes to accessing GPS navigation features on your smartphone or mobile, but things aren’t looking good. Even using the turn-by-turn voice commands without looking at the mobile could be illegal.

The Australian Road Rules are created as a guideline for road users by the NTC, forming the basis of road rules of each Australian state and territory. Each Australian state and territory can elect to pass these road rules as legislation (and thereby make them legally binding) in addition to implementing specific rules as to how you use your mobile phone when driving in the particular state or territory.

So what different rules apply in each state and how can you legally use your newly purchased GPS application, if at all? We've done the leg work, so here is the state-by-state breakdown.

New South Wales (NSW) John Hartley, NSW Police Traffic Services Commander Assistant Commissioner, told PC World that the recent amendment to the Australian Road Rules is indeed applicable to drivers in NSW. To recap, this means when driving you cannot use a mobile phone for text messaging or Internet access, and can’t hold the phone. You are allowed to mount the mobile phone using a bracket intended for this purpose, which makes using TomTom’s forthcoming iPhone Car Kit a viable option.

The NSW Roads and Traffic Authority clearly flags mobile phones as a potential driver distraction on its Web site, so even if you are using your mobile phone when it is mounted in a cradle, you may be fined for negligent driving.

It is also illegal for learner and provisional (P1) drivers to use mobile phones under any circumstance. Get caught and you use face a hefty fine and three demerit points.

Victoria. Initially Victoria planned to ban all use of GPS applications on smartphones while driving when it introduces new road rules next month. However it has since reversed these bans and has amended the new laws to allow drivers to use these GPS applications provided the mobile phone is mounted in cradle or operated without touching the phone. Drivers will also able to use a wireless device or mobile phone to make or receive calls using a hands-free attachment. A VicRoads spokesperson told PC World that drivers caught holding a mobile phone or resting it in their laps will face a fine and lose three demerit points.

Queensland. Sergeant Moya Smith from the Queensland State Traffic Support Group told PC World that drivers caught using a mobile phone in any capacity could be charged with offences such as “driving without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other road users,” and “driving without having a clear view of the road and traffic ahead, behind and to each side of the driver.” While there is no road rule that specifically mentions GPS navigation on smartphones, rules that make it illegal to hold a mobile phone while driving could easily apply.

Western Australia Regulation 265 in Western Australia’s Road Traffic Code 2000 states that the use of a mobile phone in any capacity while driving attracts a $250 fine and the loss of three demerit points. Debbie Bowen from the Western Australian Police told PC World that this regulation included anything from checking the time on the mobile to accessing the GPS navigation capabilities on the device. WA police can also charge you for using a hands-free device if they discern it has impeded your ability to drive with due care and attention.

South Australia The Australian Road Rules are also applicable in South Australia, so you can only make and receive calls from a mobile phone using a hands-free accessory or the phone's loudspeaker. It is also illegal in South Australia for learner and provisional (P1) drivers to use a mobile phone at all, even if using the loudspeaker or a hands-free accessory. Offenders will lose three demerit points from their license and face a $218 fine. The Transport South Australia Web site has a fairly detailed FAQ on mobile phone use, its risks and consequences.

The South Australian Police did inform us that drivers can technically use GPS navigation on a smartphone provided the destination is entered while the vehicle is stationary and as long as the mobile phone isn’t handled by the driver when the car is in motion. In this case, ideally you would mount the mobile phone using a proper bracket, use the loudspeaker, and ensure the mobile is visible without it distracting you when driving.

ACT and Northern Territory The ACT government has legislated some parts of the Australian Road Rules but it is yet to pass the latest amendment that clarifies the use of mobile phones while driving. According to the Australian Federal Police guide to safer driving, you can use hands-free accessories and even push buttons on a cradled mobile phone. However, you are still prohibited from holding the mobile phone, texting, and using the Internet or video services. So can you use GPS navigation on a smartphone in the Australian capital? The guide simply states, “if you can work your phone without holding it, then yes”.

Smartphones with GPS navigation applications are relatively new, so it isn't surprising that there is no specific legislation to cover their use in vehicle when driving.

Most Australian states won’t allow you to use a mobile phone unless employing a cradle and hands-free accessory. Some states are more lenient when it comes to mobile phone use, but generally all authorities frown upon the use of mobile phones while driving due to the inherent risk of driver distraction and potential road accidents. Remember, even if states do not have laws that specifically prohibit GPS navigation on smartphones, authorities may still charge you with reckless driving or obstructing the view of other drivers if they deem mobile phone use to be the cause of the offence.

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