Thanks to a recent court ruling by a California appellate court, it doesn’t matter that you were only checking your smartphone to update Google Maps. That’s because the law, as it currently reads, bans any sort of hands-on use of phones while driving.
The case comes on an appeal from the Superior Court of Fresno County. Last year, Steven Spriggs was cited for violating section 23123, which bans the use of wireless technologies while driving.
Section 23123, subdivision (a) provides: A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.
Spriggs argued that the statute was only enacted to limit talking on a cellphone, and didn’t originally apply to any other use of the device. Also, since the state had to amend the rules later to add language banning texting while driving, it supports his claim that the original intent of the law only applied to conversing while driving.
But the court rejected that claim.
“Our review of the statute‟s plain language leads us to conclude that the primary evil sought to be avoided is the distraction the driver faces when using his or her hands to operate the phone. That distraction would be present whether the wireless telephone was being used as a telephone, a GPS navigator, a clock or a device for sending and receiving text messages and emails,” said judge Kent Hamlin.
Neither the plain language of the statute nor the legislative history support the conclusion that section 23123, subdivision(a), was designed to prohibit hands-on use of a wireless telephone for conversation only. Notably, the legislative history acknowledges that the statute as worded does not eliminate a “potentially more significant” distraction of carrying on a conversation while driving. The statute instead focuses on the distraction a driver faces when using his or her hands to operate the phone, specifically including “the physical distraction a motorist encounters when either picking up the phone, punching the number keypad, holding the phone up to his or her ear to converse, or pushing a button to end a call.” That distraction would be present whether the phone is used for carrying on a conversation or for some other purpose.
Basically, the law in vague enough to cover any sort of hands-on use of the wireless device. This includes mapping in any form.
Of course, if someone wanted to program their route into Google Maps and then never touch it again while driving, that would be ok. If they wanted to make alterations to the route, they would presumably have to pull over first.
In the end, the court ruled that the law may have been enacted arbitrarily and could very well need retooling – but that’s a job for the legislature, not the court.
“It may be argued that the Legislature acted arbitrarily when it outlawed all ‘hands-on’ use of a wireless telephone while driving, even though the legal use of one‟s hands to operate myriad other devices poses just as great a risk to the safety of other motorists. It may also be argued that prohibiting driving while using ‘electronic wireless communications devices’ for texting and emailing, while acknowledging and failing to prohibit perhaps even more distracting uses of the same devices, is equally illogical and arbitrary. Both arguments should be addressed to the Legislature in support of additional legislation barring any use of those other devices in other than a hands-free manner, or in support of a repeal or amendment of section 23123 to allow the ‘hands-on’ use of wireless telephones for other purposes while driving,” says Hamlin.
As of today, 39 states ban texting while driving for all drivers, and another 6 ban the practice for novice drivers. But a recent survey from AT&T found that nearly 50% of people do it anyway – even though 98% acknowledged that it is indeed wrong to do so. A rule like this banning mapping will likely be ignored by even more people than that.