By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh.
There are plenty of clear-cut road rules that we would like to think most of us, as law-abiding drivers, do our best to follow when we’re out on the road.
Rules like sticking to the speed limit, avoiding running red lights, and not using your mobile phone while driving.
But even for those drivers who absolutely endeavour to follow the rules, there still seem to be some obscure laws that suddenly take you by surprise and leave you caught out without even realising.
Take for example the case of unfortunate Sydneysider, Sheree Panetta, who earlier this year, copped a whopping $337 fine, all because one of her passengers was video calling while seated in the front seat next to her.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Ms Panetta was fined for something that technically didn’t even have anything to do with her – something many of us probably had no idea was even an offence.
Ms Panetta Fined because Passenger was Using FaceTime
In June 2019, much to her surprise, Ms Panetta said she received a fine of $337 after her passenger, who was in the front seat beside her, was caught using FaceTime.
As per the details on her infringement notice, the offence she committed was driving with a television or visual display unit image likely to distract.
Indeed, it wasn’t Ms Panetta who was Face Timing – it was the passenger.
And yet, as the driver, she copped the fine.
Ms Panetta Posts Fine Details to Social Media; Goes Viral
In an effort to warn other drivers and their passengers, Ms Panetta was quick to take to social media to share the details of her unexpected and seemingly absurd offence.
“Tell your passengers to stay off their phones while you are driving, I got fined because my passenger was on FaceTime,” Ms Panetta wrote on her Facebook page.
“Honestly didn’t know that was a thing.”
As you may expect, the post swiftly went viral, with over 22,000 social media users sharing it and over 2,400 people expressing their astonishment and dissatisfaction in the comments – the general sentiment highlighting the fine as being ridiculous and a joke.
“It’s a passenger! Not the god damn driver, it’s not a legal distraction if the driver isn’t looking at the screen,” commented social media user Anthony Holmes.
“What a joke. They haven’t advertised this much. As if we need something else to control while we’re driving,’” another user wrote.
“Soon your (sic) gonna have fines for talking in the car,” remarked Aleki Mataipule, while another joked, “they better make driving with kids illegal because those back-seat fights are the most distracting!”
It is recommended to get advice from an experienced traffic lawyer if ever faced with a penalty notice offence incurring demerit points.
Despite the outrage, the fine Ms Panetta received and the laws that goes along with it are legitimate.
According to rule 299 Road Rules 2014 (NSW) it is illegal to drive a vehicle with a tv receiver or visual display unit either inside or on a vehicle operating while the vehicle’s moving, or stationary (but not parked) if the image or any part of the image on the screen:
- Is visible to the driver from the normal position of driving; or
- Is likely to distract another motorist driving a vehicle.
However, you can use a visual display unit in or on the vehicle operating while the vehicle is moving or stationary if:
- The visual display unit is being used as an aid for the driver provided:
- It’s an integrated part of the vehicle design; or
- It’s secured in a mounting affixed to the vehicle while being used; or
- The visual display unit is a mobile data terminal that’s fitted to a police vehicle or emergency vehicle; or
- The driver’s driving a bus where the visual display unit is (or displays) a destination sign or other kind of bus sign.
Some examples of a driver’s aid will include a rear-view screen ticket issuing machine, vehicle monitoring device, navigation or intelligent highway and vehicle system equipment, closed-circuit tv security cameras or dispatch system.
A visual display unit that’s being used as an aid for a driver in circumstances it is secured in a mounting affixed to the vehicle is when:
- The mounting is commercially designed and manufactured for it; and
- The unit’s secured in the mounting, where the mounting is affixed to the vehicle in such a way intended by the manufacturer.
So, basically, as the driver, if there’s a passenger in the front seat next to you with their phone’s visual display noticeable to you, or even if there’s a phone next to you on the seat and the screen is turned on, you can be fined for an offence because the screen is visible to you and because this is considered a distraction to you as the driver.
What are the penalties for this? The penalty for driving with a Tv or visual display unit visible to the driver in breach of the above rules is a penalty notice or on-the-spot fine of $344 plus 3 demerit points.
If you breach this rule by driving with a TV or visual display unit likely to distract another driver, the penalty notice (on-the-spot fine) is the same, but there are no demerit points attached to this offence.
If a person who ends up receiving this penalty notice for this offence decides to take the matter to court by ‘court-electing’, he/she will be required to appear before the Local Court Magistrate to face the charge.
Upon court-electing this penalty notice and attending court, a plea of either ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ must be entered before the Local Court Magistrate.
The charge will be dismissed if a verdict of ‘not guilty’ is returned by the Court following a plea of ‘not guilty’. There will be no demerit points nor fine resulting as a consequence if this occurs.
There will also be no fine without incurring demerit points if the Court imposes a non-conviction penalty as a sentence even after a plea of ‘guilty’ is entered before the Magistrate in court.
A non-conviction penalty includes a section 10 dismissal and/or a Conditional Release Order (CRO).
As criminal defence lawyers, we specialise in criminal and traffic law in Sydney, appearing across all courts.