State Court Toughens Hands-Free Driving Law that Is Often Ignored

Wednesday, April 10, 2013
(photo: mrjasonweaver, flickr)

It seemed to one-time law student Steven Spriggs that the California hands-free cellphone law had a loophole large enough to maneuver a car through, even with a cellphone in his hand.

The courts disagreed.

Last month, a Fresno County Superior Court three-judge panel upheld a court commissioner who ruled that Spriggs violated California Vehicle Code 23123 when he looked at his iPhone’s GPS map while driving. Spriggs, representing himself in court,  argued that the law, which became operative in July 2011, applied only to texting and talking on the phone, not looking at maps.

The law states: “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.”

When Spriggs was ticketed in January 2012 by the California Highway Patrol, he said that the officer was expanding the meaning of the law.

Superior Court. Judge Kent Hamlin wrote last month for the panel 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.”

The “evil” cited by Hamlin has become more pervasive nationally even as state after state rushes to pass no-hands cellphone laws. A 2012 survey (pdf) by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 14.3% of respondents nationally admitted to texting or sending emails while driving, up from 12% in 2010.

In 2011, an average 660,000 drivers were using cellphones or manipulating electronic devices while driving at any given moment. That was about the same as the year before.

About half the drivers surveyed admitted to answering calls while operating a vehicle, which works out to about 102 million people. About a quarter, or 50 million drivers, said they placed calls.

Judge Hamlin, perhaps recognizing a certain disconnect between the law and driver behavior, acknowledged that the Legislature may have acted “arbitrarily” when it made illegal all hands-free cellphone use by drivers.

But for now, getting caught using a smartphone map in Fresno County is a $160 ticket.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Driver Can’t Use Map on Handheld iPhone, California Court Rules (by Paul Elias, Associated Press)

California Court Bans Use of Smart Phone Maps while Driving (by Steph Solis, Christian Science Monitor)

Smartphone Maps while Driving Banned in California (by Eric Zeman, InformationWeek)

NHTSA Survey Finds 660,000 Drivers Using Cell Phones or Manipulating Electronic Devices while Driving at Any Given Daylight Moment (U.S. Department of Transportation)

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