What is the safest way to use my phone while driving?
But isn’t a phone conversation by itself a distraction to a driver?
Isn’t using a mobile phone while driving as dangerous as low-level drink driving?
Wouldn’t a total ban on the use of mobile phones in vehicles be a safer solution?
Can’t drivers just pull over to the side of the road to make a call?
What about technological solutions like installing in vehicle jamming devices or apps that stop phones being used in vehicles?
Drivers are ignoring the current laws; don’t we need to do more to enforce mobile phone restrictions?
Why is using a cradle so important?
Am I allowed to use my smartphone for GPS maps or to play music while driving?
But aren’t the police reporting more and more accidents and deaths caused by drivers using mobile phones?
Do I have to buy a hands-free kit to use my phone in the car?
Police say not to use mobile phones at all while driving, shouldn’t I follow their advice?
What about learner and P-plate drivers?
My smartphone has voice activated text messaging, is that legal? And what about email? 
keep your eyes on the road

What is the safest way to use my phone while driving?

The latest research of real-world driving conditions shows the key to significantly improving road safety is for drivers to keep their eyes on the road and avoid visually distracting tasks.

That’s why we fully support the current Australian Road Rules that require drivers to place their mobiles in approved cradles affixed to the dashboard so they are looking at the road ahead and not glancing down. Drivers can also use a Bluetooth provided they do not touch their handset. Visit ‘tips for safe drivers’ for more information.

As shown in our tips the safest way to use your phone while driving is to buy, install and use a cradle for your phone.

Car cradles can are inexpensive to buy and when attached to the dashboard or windscreen can reduce risks associated with reaching for handsets and help minimise eye time off the road by getting the phone up to the eye line level with the road and within easy reach. Research has shown reaching for objects in cars increases crash risk by 8.8 times for adult drivers.

However, legal hands-free phone use is not appropriate in all road and traffic situations and drivers should consider whether to make calls in heavy traffic, at intersections or in bad weather or poor road conditions.

back to top

But isn’t a phone conversation by itself a distraction to a driver?

The claim that phone conversations have a significant impact on driving performance is based on research that used driving simulators.

Dr Tom Dingus, Director of the Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute (VTTI) has said naturalistic driving studies, which use in car cameras to record drivers in actual driving situations, are a better way to assess real-world driving pressures as opposed to driving simulator studies.

The VTTI have said while “cognitively intense” tasks such as emotional phone conversations can have a measurable effect in the laboratory and simulator studies, the actual driving risks have been shown to be much lower in real-world driving conditions.

Dr Dingus has also commented on what he termed the “disconnect” between naturalistic and simulator research:

“It is important to keep in mind that a driving simulator is not actual driving. Driving simulators engage participants in tracking tasks in a laboratory. As such, researchers that conduct simulator studies must be cautious when suggesting that conclusions based on simulator studies are applicable to actual driving.

“With the introduction of naturalistic driving studies that record drivers (through continuous video and kinematic sensors) in actual driving situations, we now have a scientific method to study driver behaviour in real-world driving conditions in the presence of real-world daily pressures.

“As such, if the point of transportation safety research is to understand driver behaviour in the real-world (e.g., increase crash risk due to cell phone use), and when conflicting findings occur between naturalistic studies and simulator studies, findings from the real-world, and not the simulator-world, must be considered the gold standard.”

back to top

Isn’t using a mobile phone while driving as dangerous as low-level drink driving?

The repeated public claims that mobile phone tasks, including using legal hands-free devices, are as dangerous as drink driving are not supported by the latest scientific evidence and run the risk of de-stigmatising the very dangerous practice of driving while under the influence of alcohol.

The incorrect claim originates from a 1997 study which was misinterpreted by the media. The confusion about the study’s findings led to the researchers publishing several follow-up letters and articles to correct the misunderstanding.

More recently, naturalistic studies of real world drivers using in car cameras has shown talking and listening to a mobile phone is not nearly as risky as driving while drunk – even at or around the legal blood alcohol limit.

If using mobiles is as dangerous as drink driving, then we would expect to see a dramatic increase in traffic crashes. There are more than 30 million mobile services in operation in Australia, which is greater than the population and therefore would include almost all drivers. However, the road fatality reduction has continued despite the exponential rate of mobile phone use.

Mobile phone subscribers also provide the extra eyes and voice for police in reporting aggressive, reckless or drunk drivers, accidents and other road hazards. Official statistics (pdf) show in the past five years 62 per cent of emergency calls to ‘triple zero’ were made from mobile phones.

Click here for more information about false drink driving comparisons.

back to top

Wouldn’t a total ban on the use of mobile phones in vehicles be a safer solution?

A total ban of all mobile use in cars would not only be unenforceable but would result in some drivers trying to hide their use of mobiles while behind the wheel, which would increase the danger of crashes.

The simple act of holding a phone beneath window height or on a driver’s lap to avoid detection increases a driver’s need to look away from the road – the very thing the new national road rules are trying to avoid by placing mobile phones in cradles on the dashboard or out of sight in a drivers pocket when using Bluetooth hands-free devices.

Drivers face a range of potential distractions, not just mobiles – adjusting radios and CD players, talking with passengers, adjusting climate controls, and eating and drinking – all need to be taken into account.

Instead of banning mobiles in cars we need to educate drivers about using hands-free mobiles safely and when it is appropriate to use them and when it is not, depending on the traffic situation, road conditions and other factors.

back to top

Can’t drivers just pull over to the side of the road to make a call?

Pulling over to the side of the road to make or receive a phone call can have fatal consequences and can put drivers at greater risk of an accident than legally using their phone hands-free.

Under the Australian road rules a driver can only use their mobile phone to make handheld calls if the car is legally parked.

But misguided advice that the best strategy is for drivers to pull over to the side of the road to make or receive mobile calls fails to acknowledge the potential unintended consequences and risks of such actions.

In Australia we have already seen one example of the serious consequences of advising drivers to pull over to answer a mobile phone when driving.

On the 24th March 2010 the media reported a Sydney driver was killed when he may have pulled over into the M7 emergency lane to answer his mobile phone. Tragically the car he was in was hit from behind by a semi-trailer and crushed.

Had the driver continued to drive along the M7 freeway and legally used his phone either in a cradle or using a Bluetooth or wired hands-free device set up to allow single button or voice activated calling, this fatality could have been avoided.

back to top

keep your eyes on the road

What about technological solutions like installing in vehicle jamming devices or apps that stop phones being used in vehicles?

Media coverage of driving simulator studies that show no difference in safety between hands-free and hand-held mobile phones often result in calls for a total ban of mobile phone use in cars in Australia or calls to use radio wave jammers in cars. However, the difficulty of enforcing a total ban would make it unworkable and may in fact lead to some drivers taking risks to use mobile phones surreptitiously to avoid detection.

Because almost all drivers now carry a mobile phone with them, if a ban or call jamming was in place, drivers would be likely to take alternative actions to still use their phones but to avoid breaking the law.

Actions such as pulling over to the side of the road – which is often advised by law enforcement officers who are quoted in the media – can have fatal consequences and could put a driver at greater risk than hands-free mobile phone use.

It is also illegal to use any jamming device under Australia’s telecommunication laws.

back to top

Drivers are ignoring the current laws; don’t we need to do more to enforce mobile phone restrictions?

Often the prevalence of mobile phone use, particularly illegal hand-held mobile phone use, is over-estimated and is based on anecdotal evidence, poor open ended driver surveys or media speculation.

Many driver attitudinal surveys that are referred to are conducted by motor insurance companies to get media mentions and increase brand awareness and have little scientific value. They do not help to accurately assess the level of mobile phone use in Australia by drivers, because they are poorly designed and rarely distinguish between illegal and legal mobile phone use. These surveys aim to find alarming results to maximise media interest rather than meaningful results and we have deliberately not included these in the assessment of mobile phone prevalence.

However, well conducted driver questionnaires and observational studies of driver behaviour have been used to ascertain the prevalence of use of hand-held mobile phones while driving and these two approaches have led to vastly different estimates of use.

The most recent Australian roadside observational survey of more than 20,000 Melbourne motorists in October 2006 conducted by the Royal Melbourne Hospital found that only 1.6 per cent of all drivers use a mobile phone illegally.

The number of Australian motorists who illegally use a mobile phone has remained relatively unchanged in recent years, despite a huge increase in the number of drivers who had access to a phone.

However, Australia is not unique in the experience that a small percentage of drivers continue to use hand-held mobile phones despite laws restricting their use.

Following the introduction of laws in the state of New York making it a traffic violation to talk on a hand-held mobile phone while driving, the first such law in the USA, researchers observed a substantial short term effect. Hand-held use declined significantly from 2.3 per cent before the law to 1.1 per cent in the first few months after the law.

In Connecticut, an adjacent state with no such law the usage rate of 2.9 per cent did not change significantly from before or after the law. In a follow-up study one year later, hand-held use was back up to 2.1 per cent.

The researchers concluded that vigorous enforcement campaigns accompanied by publicity are necessary to achieve longer term compliance.

back to top

Why is using a cradle so important?

In all Australian States and Territories drivers are required to have their mobile phone completely hands-free or mounted in a dock or cradle affixed to the car if they want to talk on the phone while driving.

Australia-wide laws also allow for the use of Bluetooth and hands-free devices provided the driver does not touch the handset unless it is mounted in a cradle.

The benefits of mounting your phone in a car cradle on the dashboard or windscreen is it can minimise the amount of time you have to take your eyes off the road by having the phone up to eye line level and within easy reach.

Cradles also help reduce the risks associated with reaching for a phone within the car, which research has shown can increase crash risk by 8.8 times for adult drivers.

Rather than the illegal alternative of looking down at a phone in your lap or rummaging around for a phone in a handbag, all drivers should buy, install and use a car cradle so they can make and receive calls in a safer way.

For more information see the cradles and hands-free section

back to top

Am I allowed to use my smartphone for GPS maps or to play music while driving?

The National Transport Commission (NTC) has recently announced the 10th package of proposed amendments to the Australian Road Rules which will enable drivers to use mobile phones as navigational aids.

Using mobile phones for audio music functions while driving is not allowed under the current and proposed Australian Road Rules.

However the Australian road rules are model laws only and must be adopted in each State or Territory, which is not always the case.

Unfortunately the current rules for using mobile phones for music and GPS/satellite navigation purposes are quite confusing across Australia’s different States and Territories.

Under current laws adopted in the ACT, South Australia and Tasmania, drivers are banned from using their phone-based GPS maps but are allowed to use portable navigation devices for the same purpose.

Northern Territory, New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia have added exemptions to their road rules, which allow the use of mobile phones for GPS navigation provided that the driver does not touch the phone and the handset is mounted in a commercially approved car cradle/holder affixed to the windscreen or dashboard in a location that will not distract or obscure the drivers view.

New South Wales and Victorian laws also allow audio playing functions if the mobile phone is mounted in a cradle under the above stipulations.

The road laws in Queensland are less clear and offer no specific advice on using mobile phones for navigation purposes when placed in a cradle. We recommend all drivers check the details of the specific laws in your State or Territory to be certain you comply with the law.

back to top

1But aren’t the police reporting more and more accidents and deaths caused by drivers using mobile phones?

While mobile phones are a real distraction in the car and their use can result in serious accidents, real life accident data indicates that mobile phone use does not contribute significantly to crashes or fatalities.

A recent analysis of 340 serious casualty crashes in Victoria and NSW between 2000 and 2011, using data gleaned from forensic examination of crash scenes and anonymous interviews with drivers has found that in 0.9 per cent of crashes the driver was using a mobile phone.

The study from the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) found that intoxicated drivers caused 13.5 per cent of crashes, drivers falling asleep resulted in 11.8 per cent of crashes and 3.2 per cent of crashes were caused by passenger interactions.

A publicly available database of annual crash statistics in New South Wales from 1997 to 2011 shows there are around 50,000 crashes each year on NSW roads and less than 0.1 per cent of all crashes are related to illegal hand-held mobile phone use.

Also, if using mobile phones is significantly dangerous then we could expect to see a dramatic increase in traffic accidents in the last decade in line with the exponential growth in mobile phone use. But, in fact, the reverse is true. In Australia road fatalities have continued to decline and correlate with major road safety initiatives, such as the introduction of laws to enforce seatbelt wearing, the introduction of random breath testing and a mandatory 50km speed limit in residential areas.

For more information see our page on accident statistics.

back to top

keep your eyes on the road

Do I have to buy a hands-free kit to use my phone in the car?

In all Australian States and Territories drivers are required to have their mobile phone completely hands-free or mounted in a dock or cradle affixed to the car if they want to talk on the phone while driving.

Australia-wide laws also allow for the use of Bluetooth and hands-free devices provided the driver does not touch the handset unless it is mounted in a cradle.

If you have a smartphone with speaker mode, you can legally dock your phone in a cradle and activate the speaker mode when making or receiving calls.

It is illegal to use a phone on speaker mode if it is placed anywhere else but in a cradle, such as in your lap, passenger seat or dashboard. For more information see our page on cradles and hands-free devices

back to top

Police say not to use mobile phones at all while driving, shouldn’t I follow their advice?

Using mobile phones hands-free while driving is legal in all States and Territories in Australia.

AMTA believes that instead of blanket messages that discourage phone use in cars, we need to educate drivers about using hands-free mobiles safely and when it is appropriate to use them and when it is not, depending on the traffic situation, road conditions and other factors.

Just because mobile phone use is legal does not mean it’s appropriate for drivers to use them at all times.

Drivers should not make calls in heavy traffic, at intersections or in bad weather or poor road conditions. If a call is unnecessary or you consider it unsafe to answer at the time, don’t answer the call. Let it divert to voicemail or an answering service.

For more information see our safe driving tips.

back to top

What about learner and P-plate drivers?

The rules for mobile phone use while driving for learner and provisional drivers vary in each state and territory.

Currently New South Wales, the Northern Territory, South Australia, Queensland and Victoria all have restrictions for learner and provisional drivers.

We recommend you refer to the specific law in your State and Territory.

back to top

My smartphone has voice activated text messaging, is that legal?

And what about email? Australia-wide laws allow for the use of mobile phones to make or receive hands-free calls only.

All other communication functions, including a text messages, Facebook, twitter, video messages, emails, instant messaging and internet use are all illegal.

For more information see our page on the Australian road rules.

back to top

road rules
Frequently Asked Questions | Back to top