It is getting weirder and weirder out there as the legal system tries to keep up with changing mobile technologies and uses of such technologies. A California Court just ruled that fooling around with your phone's map app while driving ought to be as illegal as texting or using the device without a hands-free solution. Stephen Spriggs launched the case against the State of California, challenging a citation for violating 23123 of the California Vehicle Code during a traffic stop in January of 2012. Section 23123 address voice calling and typing out text messages while driving, but does not directly address the use of maps while driving. Keep in mind, that this is only a state trial court that is speaking and as such does not carry the final word on the validity of the legislation. The issues facing the trial court, however, are a precursor to what will eventually reach various appellate courts across the country as the legal system attempts to create some kind of structure to what is becoming a truly chaotic situation.
Superior Court Judge W. Kent Hamlin ruled that the statute's purpose was to prevent distractions from a driver's face when using his or her hands to operate the phone. To the court, the distraction of using a map while driving is the same as using the phone as a navigation tool, clock or as a device for sending/receiving text messages. In California, drivers are found $30 for operating a cellphone for the first offense. The Commonwealth of Virginia is considering similar legislation at this time.
Using a map on a smartphone while driving can no doubt be a recipe for something very bad. On the other hand, the California courts have not, so far, under this statute, banned the use of smartphones as GPS devices if the driver mounts the phone on the dashboard. In California, if a driver needs to change the route or destination during the trip, he or she will need to bring the car to a complete stop before making those changes. Additionally, the law does not prohibit hands-free use so long as the driver uses voice-operated applications that allow them to dictate, send and listen to the device in the car. While mounted smartphones and hands-free communication devices are safer, they may still bring the same distractions to the mobile phone such as notifications from e-mail, Facebook or Twitter.
So what do we do next? What about holding the phone in one hand just to look at your smart phone's map as Spriggs claimed to be doing? Should just looking at your phone while driving be illegal? Should cars come with smartphone-mounting kits? Where should they be installed? Might some of the answers come through better driver education and various incentives to drivers to comply with some kind of uniform policy as it pertains to the use of phones while driving. One thing is clear: As I look at the legislative activity across the country and the steps various state lawmakers have taken to curb this “runaway train”, so to speak, the safe bet in the future may be the use of voice-activated systems. Of course, that presents a cost problem for many. How many employers are going to want to pay for such systems if they have, for example, significant sales forces?
I am not sure what the answer is at this point and would entertain any comments or thoughts you might have on how to balance the need for mobile communication while driving with the ongoing threat from that very communication to our safety on public ways. Please share your thoughts your comments with me at [email protected] or call the Katz Law Group at 508-480-8202.