The pros and cons of digital drivers licences

By Wade O'Leary on 27 November 2015
Digital Drivers Licence

The State Government has confirmed that motorists with digital drivers' licences will not be fined if their phone batteries are flat when police ask to see their ID.

"Motorists and others will not be fined if their phone battery is simply flat," a Service NSW spokesman told the Sydney Morning Herald.

"The current design involves responsible authorities having the ability to verify the fact that you hold a valid licence in the case where your battery is flat."

The spokesperson also confirmed the initial wide scale roll out of the digital licences will cost around $23 million in capital expenditure and approximately $5 million in operational expenditure.

Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet has said the election promise will be delivered as a cost and convenience advance that keeps pace with changes in the private sector, although plastic licences will continue to be available.

“Customers are doing more and more transactions on their smartphones: from cafes to banks, businesses are offering customers the opportunity to access their services, loyalty programs and payment systems through smartphone apps,” he said when first announcing the proposal. 

“There are currently over 123 different licence types and we issue over 2.8 million plastic cards each year, costing us tens of millions of dollars in printing.”

The transition will start with fishing permits, responsible service of alcohol (RSA) permits and responsible conduct of gambling (RCG) licences with the goal of moving to drivers’ licences by 2018.

The decision is an Australian first, following the leads of the US states of Iowa and Delaware which are both about to introduce phone-based licensing systems.

The government’s Digital Council will set out a roadmap for the process and Mr Perrottet said Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione is a ‘strong supporter’ of the proposal.

A digital licence can also potentially store a lot more information on the holder that would be useful during an emergency, such as blood type and next-of-kin contact details.

But leading US tech website CNET has asked: what happens when a police officer wants to check your licence?

During a traffic stop, an officer will typically take a motorist’s licence back to their vehicle to conduct a check.

A smartphone might have to be unlocked before police could check your licence, which would theoretically give them access to the many other forms of data stored including email and photos.

The head of Iowa’s Department of Transportation told CNET they were exploring privacy protection options, including technology that would allow police to check licences without leaving the sight of motorists or a system that would lock the phone while the drivers licence app was open.

The NRMA recognises that this proposal is in keeping with the general progression of services to online and app formats but any transition would have to be thoroughly examined and tested with end-users in mind, particularly in the areas of privacy and security.

But with the question of police access to smartphones having already gone all the way to the US Supreme Court, it will be interesting to see how the citizens of Iowa and Delaware – and indeed, NSW – respond to digital licensing.