New AI traffic cameras sting low-income Victorians most

By Sam Irvine | 09 May 24
Road safety camera

More than half of Victoria’s mobile phone and seatbelt detection camera sites are in areas of high socio-economic disadvantage, an analysis of Victorian Government data has revealed. 

Using location data from February, an analysis by The Citizen shows that 87 of 161 camera locations – 54 per cent – were in areas where the personal weekly income was below the state median of $803.

The cameras use AI technology to detect drivers using their mobile phone, resulting in a $577 fine and the loss of four demerit points or failing to wear a seatbelt, resulting in a $385 fine and three demerit points.

Six mobile AI camera units were rolled out across the state from July last year, as Victoria recorded its highest road toll in 15 years. The solar-powered units are regularly moved around the network of camera sites. They sit on portable trailers, with their high definition cameras mounted on an extended pole.

The location of cameras has provoked some questions in the community around the ambitions of the program and the processes guiding the selection of camera positions, with community advocates concerned about the burden of fines on struggling communities.

It comes after an investigation by The Age revealed that last year, Victoria generated $942 million dollars in revenue from fines and infringements, more than any other state in the country.

Camera locations are chosen by the Road Safety Camera Site Selection Committee which is chaired by Victoria Police alongside representatives from the Department of Transport and the Department of Justice and Community Safety.

A spokesperson from Victoria Police said camera locations were determined based on factors such as a “road’s crash history, reports of excessive speeding, identification by police as a location with speed related problems or where other speed enforcement options are impracticable or unsuitable”.

But in the years prior to the camera roll out, crash data from the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) shows that several disadvantaged rural areas – which were allocated multiple camera locations – had fewer fatal road accidents than inner-city municipalities without cameras.

Between January 2018 and July 2023, the combined road toll of Seymour, Castlemaine, Kyneton, Kilmore and Corio (10) was lower than either the City of Yarra (12) or City of Melbourne (18). 

There were 19 camera locations allocated across these regional areas, which have a high proportion of low-income households, while no camera locations were designated across Yarra and Melbourne, where the respective personal weekly incomes were $1,324 and $959, according to 2021 census data.

The regional town of Kyneton, which was designated three camera locations, recorded no fatal accidents in that period. 

Marshall Ryan, a resident of Seymour, was contacted by The Citizen after he posted an alert about the cameras in the Seymour community noticeboard Facebook group last December. 

“I thought, how come there’s six camera [locations] here and there’s none in South Yarra or Toorak?” he told The Citizen.

Ryan said the $577 fine for using a mobile phone would be a major financial stretch for many of the town’s nearly 7000 residents, where the personal weekly income was $623, according to the last census.

“Seymour is a pocket of low socio-economic status, in fact, it’s quite known for it,” he said.

“I’m not rich and I’m not struggling … but I can’t afford 600 bucks.”

According to data from the Victorian government website Cameras Save Lives, between July and December 2023, the areas with the highest rates of infringement were two of Victoria’s poorest suburbs, Coolaroo and Campbellfield, where the personal weekly income is $437 and $444. 

A total of 53,105 infringements were issued during that period, of which 30,231 were issued for mobile phone use.

Top infringing cameras July 2023 – December 2023

CEO of the Jesuit Social Services, Julie Edwards, said flat-fee fines were particularly damaging for low-income earners.

“People are being forced to choose between paying their fines and putting food on the table, paying electricity bills, and seeing the doctor. These fines – expensive and disproportionate – harm the people experiencing disadvantage we accompany in our programs.”

As a part of a continued push by community organisations, Edwards called for the Victorian Government to adopt a fines system relative to an individual’s income.

“We stand with community legal centres, the Victorian Council of Social Services and our sector in calling on the Victoria Government to adopt a proportional fines system that links fine amounts with people’s capacity to pay.”

In Seymour, Ryan said that to his knowledge the camera roll out hadn’t been preceded by a public road safety campaign informing residents of the risks of using a mobile device while driving. 

“It leaves a lot of questions…what are they trying to do?” he said. 

A Victoria Police spokesperson said mobile camera locations and operating times are determined by police, but did not respond to specific questions about locations where the cameras had been shown to be effective in reducing accidents, and whether socio-economic factors were taken into consideration.

In a written statement, the spokesperson said cameras are a proven deterrent to speeding and are backed-up with roadside enforcement. “[Camera locations] take into account the road’s crash history, reports of excessive speeding, identification by police as a location with speed related problems or where other speed enforcement options are impracticable or unsuitable.”

A spokesperson from the Department of Justice and Community Safety, which manages the camera network, said the technology could be deployed in up to 162 locations in rural and metropolitan areas throughout the state (published on Victoria’s Cameras Save Lives website) and that the cameras were successful in reducing driver distraction.

Between July and December 2023, the cameras detected 53,105 offences, including 16,499 drivers and 6,375 passengers not wearing seatbelts, and 30,231 drivers using devices such as mobile phones, the DJCS spokesperson said.

Data from the Transport Accident Commission shows the road toll is 7.9 per cent lower than this time in April last year but is still 6.9 per cent higher than the five-year average.