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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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).