California Court: Looking at Map App While Driving is Legal

March 4, 2014

Two years ago a California man was pulled over for using a map application on his iPhone 4 while driving on a Fresno highway.  Steven Spriggs was ticketed and convicted of violating Vehicle Code Section 23123(a), which prohibits drivers from using a cell phone while driving unless it is designed to allow hands-free listening and talking.  Last week, an appellate court overturned his conviction.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for the State of California unanimously held that the statute only prohibits a conversation on a cell phone while driving and holding the phone in your hand.  The court focused on the statutory language, believing that the legislature’s use of the phrase “hands-free listening and talking,” evidenced that it did not intend to prohibit drivers from holding a phone and using it for any purpose.  Furthermore, the court looked at the statute’s legislative history to determine that the legislature was focused on addressing the physical distraction of making a phone call and holding the phone to your ear.
California also has a law prohibiting drivers from writing, sending, or reading a text-based communication while driving.  However, Spriggs was not cited under this section.  The Vehicle Code section under which Spriggs was ticketed was only intended to “prohibit the use of a wireless telephone to engage in a conversation while driving unless the telephone is used in a hands-free manner,” which Spriggs was not doing.

‘How are we going to know they’re not texting?  I don’t really see how playing with a map is any safer than texting.’

A California Highway Patrol spokesperson stated that it is too premature to speculate on what affect the court’s decision will have.  Fresno Police Department Captain Andy Hall noted that one major issue with the ruling is the difficulty of determining if a driver is switching between a text message and a maps app.  He stated, “How are we going to know they’re not texting?  I don’t really see how playing with a map is any safer than texting.”  It seems that the state would have had an easier time convicting Spriggs had it ticketed him for violating the ban on text-based communication while driving.  But, who knows?  California law doesn’t currently seem to ban the use of mobile apps while driving.
Spriggs believes that “[p]eople who talk on their cellphones or text should get a ticket.  But technology is changing so fast.  There are hundreds of apps nowadays, so it will be interesting to see what the Legislature does.”
On a related note, last October, a woman who was stopped by the same California Highway Patrol was found not guilty for wearing Google Glass while driving.  Google, which powers the world’s most popular application, Google Maps, has been very involved in lobbying state legislatures to allow the use of Google Glass while driving.  It will be interesting to follow if and how state and local legislatures regulate the use of this and other emerging technologies, like apps, while driving.