Should We Ban Handheld Smartphone Maps While Driving? California Court Thinks So

It's weird out there and getting weirder: A California court just ruled that screwing around with your phone's map app while driving ought to be as illegal as texting or using the device without a handsfree solution.

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David Young-Wolff / Getty Images

It’s weird out there and getting weirder: A California court just ruled that screwing around with your phone’s map app while driving ought to be as illegal as texting or using the device without a handsfree solution.

I’ll get back to that in a moment, but let’s talk briefly about the stuff we do while driving. Some years ago I bought my first car-based GPS, an entry-level Garmin you clipped into one of these windshield holders that attach by plastic cup and a lever you clamp down to really crank the suction. For years, both here in the U.S. and another two living in the U.K., I used the thing to go everywhere. And, I suspect like most people, I’d often fiddle with it while driving, whether adding new routes or destinations, checking sub-screens for additional info, or just tapping to mute it altogether.

There’s no question that’s a distraction, you know, if we define that word as something “that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else” (thanks New Oxford American Dictionary). Then again, by that definition, eating in the car counts as a distraction. So does fiddling with the climate control or audio systems, changing CDs, glancing at a piece of paper with a handwritten address or scanning printed route directions. You can make the argument that even stuff along the road, say splashy billboards with clever (or not-so-clever) advertising and political rhetoric are distracting (rubberneck much?). Really, most things we do in life count as distractions. Sitting here typing this, the music that’s playing in the background is a distraction (listening to Hiromi’s new album, Move, keeps drawing my attention away from writing). The rain splashing the window on what’s turning out to be a pretty gloomy Monday is a distraction. The cup of coffee I keep reaching for (and having to refill) is definitely a distraction. (Thus, my excuse for taking too long to type this up: music, rain and coffee.)

No, I’m not hurtling down the road in a 2-ton metal hulk on a highway where I’m separated from equally speedy oncoming vehicles by just a few feet. Then again, I often listen to music, most surely have to deal with rain and drink plenty of coffee, all while managing to obey the rules of the road — and, I’d argue anyway, drive defensively. The only serious accident I’ve had in my life didn’t involve a distraction at all, but a patch of unexpected black ice and a sudden crosswind that sent me fishtailing at 70 m.p.h. off the interstate into an Iowa ditch filled, thankfully, with two feet of snow.

So I’m a little concerned to see (via Techdirt) that a California judge just ruled using a mobile phone to fiddle with a mapping/GPS program qualifies as distracted driving (thus rendering it illegal per state law). The case involved a driver who’d been cited for “driving a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone.” The driver claimed to be using the phone for mapping purposes and argued that the state’s distracted driving laws shouldn’t have applied (he says he was looking at a map on the phone while holding it in his hand). The court, while admitting the state’s underlying distracted driving strictures themselves might be too broad, ultimately disagreed with the driver, finding that the law clearly forbids using a wireless phone while driving “unless the device is being used in a hands-free manner.” So much for maps, apps — you name it. Simply holding the phone in your hands, for all intents and purposes, is pretty much a California no-no.

That Garmin I mentioned above? Long gone. I yanked it shortly after picking up my first iPhone in early 2011. Most trips, where I know what I’m doing beforehand, I’ll set it up before I pull out of my garage. But occasionally I’ll reprogram it on the go, when I need to add a destination or change some detail. And yet Michigan’s own distracted driving laws stipulate the following:

Reading, typing, or sending text message on wireless 2-way communication device prohibited; use of hand-held mobile telephone prohibited; applicability of subsections (1) and (2); exceptions; violation as civil infraction; fine; local ordinances superseded.

I’m pretty sure typing an address into my phone’s navigation app while driving counts as “texting.” Should it? I suppose it probably should. What’s the difference between typing an address into a GPS/mapping app and typing/reading SMS messages, really? The latter activity might continue longer if you’re engaged in a conversation, but they’re both the same from a motor-skills standpoint, aren’t they?

What about holding the phone in one hand just to look at your smartphone’s map (say you lack a phone-mounting apparatus) as this person claimed to be doing? Should just looking at your phone while driving be illegal? Should cars come with smartphone-mounting kits? Where ought they be installed? Above the dash only? And — here’s where it gets really quirky — what’s the difference, really, between glancing down at a phone you’re holding in one hand, and glancing down at one of these GPS/mapping LCD screens that come built-into so many vehicle dashboards these days?

Could some of these issues be remedied through better driver training? Do we need OS-level standards in our mobile computing devices that help govern how we use them in moving vehicles (specifically while driving)? I’m not sure what the answer ought to be, but state legislatures need to tread very carefully and, to the extent this stuff does warrant legislation, propose laws rooted firmly in the actual research, not some legislator’s unstudied opinions (like this amendment recently introduced by West Virginia to ban a product that’s not even available yet).

20 comments
aklimento
aklimento

Cops must do their work. Distracting driving and reckless driving is the same offense, no matter what reason was for it. Sure you can see distracted driver from behind - (s)he driving recklessly: not upholding speed of traffic flow, fluctuating in lane, not indicate his(her) maneuvers. Hefty fines and points on a license will be rather sobering shower for multitasking jockeys playing games with other lives.

ChristieLey
ChristieLey

If someone needs directions, then they should safely get off the road and read directions to their destination. This should not be done by the driver  while car is in motion.

terranovax25
terranovax25

I've lived in California for 30 years or so and seen just about everything that people do while driving. Here's a secret (tongue in cheek)...if you don't want to get popped for looking at maps on your Iphone...just make sure you're exceeding the speed limit. Almost no one obeys the speed laws on California freeways and very few ever get pulled over...for anything.

Tino
Tino

I think it does make sense! a police officer would have a tough time determining who is looking at maps and who is reading / sending texts!!

At the same time, would it then only be logical to ban looking at paper maps too?! 

joeblo1999
joeblo1999

Self-driving cars would be the safest...it would protect you from the knucklehead in the lane next to you or coming at you.

joeblo1999
joeblo1999

Why is there not more use of HUD`s like Pontiac used to use in the late 90`s and doesn`t the Corvette have some HUD functionality right now ?

Maybe Google Glass is the answer. Essentially a voice-controlled HUD.

joeblo1999
joeblo1999

What is funny is looking at a Thomas Guide is legal , but just as distracting.

Yepi
Yepi

Of course. They must do. I can't count the number of idiots I end up passing (with a wide margin) because they're wandering around in their lanes or moving briskly ten miles an hour slower than the rest of the traffic in the fast lane because they're do distracted with their phones, they don't seem to realize the danger they're placing everyone else in.  For that alone, they should be punished.

mishael53
mishael53

"Could some of these issues be remedied through better driver training?" The answer is a definite YES. Cause the California law illogic is that it's safe for me to look down at my printed out directions but not my phone. Lame and illogical

luigicappel
luigicappel

Even Portable Navigation Devices have a warning on them, not to enter data on the display while driving. Most of us do at some stage, even if it is to accept an instruction offering an alternative route due to traffic congestion. This ruling will I'm sure get challenged. Nevertheless, some common sense should prevail.

With today's technology, we can use tools like voice commands and hardly have to touch a mobile or car navigation device once we are driving. The mobile, like the PND should be mounted somewhere on the windscreen, by the door pillar is a good location unless a passenger is monitoring it. The challenge is made more interesting because many PND's now include capability such as social media functionality, even though it isn't a phone. Usage guidelines are what's needed in my opinion rather than guidelines. Start by hitting on the people driving with one hand holding the phone to their ear. Now that's not only distracting, they don't have 2 hands available in the event of an emergency manoevre being required.

ChadHill
ChadHill

I say we ban stupid people that want to ban everything ! Police use labtops while drive ban them as well ! Has our world gone ban crazy !

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

Perhaps if you lived in mountainous area or (as I do) on an island, you'd realize the weakness of your argument. Anything that pulls your eyes off the road for more than five seconds is dangerous. The judge is absolutely right.


DaveRaines
DaveRaines

@joeblo1999 Google Glass will be a visual and cognitive distraction we can't even look away from or easily put down.

DaveRaines
DaveRaines

@joeblo1999 What's funny is that you think it is legal.  If a cop thinks you are being distracted by using a Thomas Guide, you can get a ticket.  The only difference is that cell phones and other mobile devices are specifically spelled out in the laws, whereas the other distractions are not.  But, that doesn't mean that all the other distractions are immune from ticketing.

curt3rd
curt3rd

Driving requires you to do more than one thing at a time. If you cant multitask then you should not be driving. 

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

I defy you to drive safely at freeway speed all the time while looking at something other than the road for more than a second or two.

Keep in mind that HUDs were created to keep the pilot's eyes on the mountain they'd otherwise slam into while looking down at instruments.  If it takes a fraction of a second to check speed, another fraction to check altitude, another fraction to check each thing like heading, oil temp, fuel, level, climb/drop turn/bank, etc, you have several seconds of inattention.

And airplanes don't always have mountains looming up before them like drivers have other drivers cutting them off or pulling out in front of them.

Listening to music doesn't take your eyes off the road because it's a passive activity.  it's only a distraction if you think it's distracting.  But a conversation in the car IS a distraction since it's NOT a passive activity.  You can't help but be distracted.  And when messing around with any electronic device, the more complicated the device is, the more of your attention it demands.  Yes, the CD player is distracting, but it isn't terribly complicated to use.  A cell phone is far and away more complicated thus requiring far more of your attention, which will be taken away from where it happens to be which is on your driving.

Maybe because the author has an iPhone and is angry he's breaking the law by fiddling with it while he drives that he's trying to rationalize in absolutist terms why listening to music or fiddling with the CD player is no more of a distraction than holding the cell phone with both hands, steering with a knee and trying to find the closest Best Buy because Siri can't hear you right.  The fact is, there are levels of distraction from none to extreme for everything.  Most people can't handle more than low level distractions.  A cell phone, for any hands-on purpose, is not a low level distraction.

I can't count the number of idiots I end up passing (with a wide margin) because they're wandering around in their lanes or moving briskly ten miles an hour slower than the rest of the traffic in the fast lane because they're do distracted with their phones, they don't seem to realize the danger they're placing everyone else in.  For that alone, they should be punished.

Were it up to me, I'd equate cell phoning and driving with drunken driving and punish exactly the same.  They're equally impaired in their driving skills (With some studies suggesting the cell phone user has poorer driving skills).  May as well punish them in kind.

Oh, and FYI, more studies have proven that multi-taskers are worst at getting things done than those who stick to one task at a time.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@curt3rd I said why they put HUD's in airplanes - because too many pilots, with nothing around them but open sky, ran into mountains while looking at instruments.  In a car, there are a lot more hazards happening a lot more often that generally take a much faster reaction reaction time to avoid an accident.  My car may only go 65 MPH, but it's doing that on the ground where there are multiple hazards at all times.  A plane may be doing 1500 MPH at 30,000 feet, but chances are, there are no mountains they'll plow into all that often.

The cars need HUD's more than the planes do, because taking your eyes off the road to mess with stuff - even if you're a champion multi-tasker - means you're doing your driving poorly and have a substantially greater chance of hitting something - HUD or not.

I was not comparing cars favorably to airplanes.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

curt3rd
curt3rd

I was just pointing out that you have to multitask in order to drive regardless. I remember when they tried to make smoking illegal while driving. Also, you just compared flying a plane to driving a car.  Not sure how fast your car goes but Ive never had my car at 30,000 feet.