Court: Hands off smartphone GPS

no gps hands-free logoUse of smartphones as GPS devices long has been a gray area in distracted driving laws, but a California appellate court ruling indicates it’s time to put away those map apps.

The “plain language” of California’s cell phone statute and its legislative history indicate any use of a wireless communications device by drivers that is not hands-free is against the law, the Appellate Division of Fresno Superior Court has ruled.

The original conviction of Steven Spriggs was for driving while using a wireless phone (without a hands-free attachment). Spriggs admitted to driving while viewing his smartphone’s map and directions application.

The California distracted driving statute prohibits driving “while using a wireless telephone,” but does not define “using.” The appellate court held that the Legislature could have limited the law’s scope to “listening and talking” or “conversing,” but did not.

Writing for the appellate court, Judge W. Kent Hamlin concluded:

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.

Appellant Spriggs argued that since the state’s text messaging law was adopted after the handheld cell phone law, that indicated the mobile phone law was designed to only prohibit conversations. The court disagreed, citing the legislative history of the laws.

Orin Kerr, a computer crime law expert, wrote that he found it “a very puzzling kind of statutory interpretation.”

“The fact that the legislature was worried about distracted drivers in enacting the first ban doesn’t tell us whether the statute enacted should apply to all things that distract drivers or only some things,” Kerr wrote on a legal blog.

The court did give opponents of electronic distracted driving laws some ammo.

The court conceded that an argument could be made that there are legal uses of drivers’ hands that could pose “just as great a risk” to other motorists. And, the court wrote, prohibiting texting and email while failing to prohibit “perhaps even more distracting uses” of smartphones “could be seen as equally illogical and arbitrary.”

Those arguments should be addressed to the Legislature, the court said.

The ruling does not address use of in-dash GPS systems or any mapping application that can be used hands-free. It also appears that use of a wireless device as a music player would require the listener to keep his hands off the device.

The ruling in the People v. Spriggs was filed March 21 and made public in early April.


  1. Ross Banick says:

    This idiotic ruling was overturned today when the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Fifth Appellate District just issued this awesomely succinct ruling: “Spriggs contends he did not violate the statute because he was not talking on the telephone. We agree.”.

    However, I called Simitians office today and they implied that our infamous senator is working on a bill to ban holding ANYTHING in your hands while driving. The implication from the office when I asked who was behind this was the auto manufacturers stand to gain a windfall that they’ve been heretofore missing out on.

    The sad thing is that, in California, Simitian’s nonsense (as was McCarthy’s in the 50′s) is still seen as reasonable, so, we may have to wait 20 years to gain our senses back.

  2. Al Cinamon says:

    Judge Hamlin is obviously ignorant of every research study ever done on cell phones and the like. He says, “The primary evil sought to be avoided is the distraction the driver faces when using his or her hands to operate the phone.” Wrong! The primary evil is the distraction the driver faces when using his brain to deal with a conversation while trying to concentrate on driving. The court was partially right when noting that “prohibiting texting and email while failing to prohibit ‘perhaps even more distracting uses’ of smartphones ‘could be seen as equally illogical and arbitrary.'” Ha! Not only illogical and arbitrary. They are also phony and fraudulent.

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