You know it’s a bad idea, but sometimes you just can’t help it: You’ve occasionally used your cellphone while driving, and you haven’t always done so “hands free.”
If you texted while driving, you probably broke the law. And if you held your phone up to your ear, you might have. But, at least in California, if you simply used Google Maps or a similar application, you didn’t violate any statute. In fact, under California law, you can apparently cruise around town while checking Facebook or browsing the web.
In the mid-aughts, cellphone-use-while-driving statutes swept the nation. Today, 41 states ban text messaging while operating a vehicle. Twelve more prohibit using a cellphone by hand while driving. California penalizes both practices. (In California and other states, the rules for cellphone use are more restrictive for drivers like minors and school bus operators.)
But last month, by clarifying what it means to “use” a cellphone, an appeals court paved the way for all kinds of dodgy multitasking.
In the case before California’s Fifth District Court of Appeal, an officer witnessed a man use a cellphone to check a map application while stopped in heavy traffic. (People v. Spriggs, 224 Cal. App. 4th 150 (2014).) The officer ticketed the man for violating Vehicle Code section 23123(a). The law prohibits motorists from “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.” (A separate law—section 23123.5—forbids texting while driving.) The court of appeal threw out the ticket, holding that section 23123(a) bans only the act of holding a cellphone while talking on it.
The court’s precise holding was that handling a phone and looking at a map application while driving doesn’t violate section 23123(a). Its upshot is to ostensibly allow California drivers to do just about anything with a cellphone while driving—other than hold it and talk on it or write, send, or read text-based communications. (A text-based communication includes for example, emails and instant messages.) The opinion even describes “surfing the internet” as a “permitted use.”
One the one hand, it’s nice to know that people in California can consult their phones for directions while driving. On the other, it’s terrifying to realize that they can’t be ticketed for gliding down the Interstate while checking the latest on Twitter.