Smartphone Map Apps Throw Driving Law Into Question



A California court has ruled that it’s OK to look at a map app on a phone while driving. It’s another example of problems with the wording of traffic laws struggling to keep up with technology.

Steven Spriggs successfully appealed against a $165 ticket issued by a highway patrol officer because he’d been looking at a map on his phone, which was held in his hand.

The officer said Spriggs had violated section 23123 of the state code which says “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 there was ambiguity about what “using a wireless telephone” meant. He said that as the law specifically mentions listening and talking, that’s the only thing which is covered by the law; in turn he said there was no ban on using an app. (It should be noted that another California law specifically bans texting while driving.)

The court agreed with Spriggs and judges said the law “prohibits a driver only from holding a wireless telephone while conversing on it.” They said they interpreted the wording as meaning lawmakers only intended to cover phone calls and that had they wanted to ban all use of the device they would have used a broader phrase such as “hands-free operation.”

For his part, Spriggs says he’s no fan of dangerous driving. However, he argues the wording and enforcement of the law should be designed specifically to stop people whose phone use is causing them to drive erratically, rather than putting the emphasis on the phone use itself.

The case follows another California driver beating a ticket issued because she was wearing Google Glass while driving, in violation of a ban on using TV and video screens that can be seen by the driver while operating the car. A court commissioner who overturned the ticket said that although in principle Google Glass — a cross between a smartphone and a pair of spectacles — qualified as a banned device, the law could only apply if officers could prove it was in use while driving, something that appears close to impossible with spectacles.

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