For years, we've discussed the problematic nature of "distracted driving" laws that seek to outlaw things like talking on your phone or texting while driving. It is not
that we don't think these behaviors are dangerous. It seems clear that those activities can take one's attention away from driving and potentially increase the likelihood of an accident by a significant amount. However, the laws are often broad and inconsistent -- and, worse, they can have serious unintended consequences. As we've noted there are lots and lots of things that can distract a driver which are still considered perfectly legal, such as changing the radio station, talking to passengers, eating, etc. Trying to ban each and every distraction one by one
is a ridiculous and impossible task. In fact, studies have suggested that bad distracted drivers will often just find a different distraction
to occupy their time. And, thanks to these laws, those drivers are often still texting while driving, but are simply holding their phones even lower, taking their eyes further off the road, so as to avoid detection... actually making the roads more dangerous
. The real answer is to focus on stopping bad driving
, not trying to call out specific activities.
Anyway, all of that is preamble to a new court ruling in California, found by Orin Kerr
, saying that using a mobile phone to check a mapping/GPS program violates the state's law against distracted driving
. The driver had argued that the laws are about talking on a phone and/or texting/surfing the internet, but that clearly using a mapping program should be allowed. The court disagreed, even as it acknowledged some of the oddities of what that meant, and said it's really the job of the state lawmakers to figure out what they want to do.
The ruling doesn't totally rule out using a phone's mapping program, but does suggest it needs to be set up in a manner where it is done handsfree, where the driver does not need to hold or touch the phone. Basically, the ruling suggests that it's mostly illegal to touch your mobile phone while driving. The driver noted that this interpretation didn't make much sense, since the legislature had felt the need to add a specific clause to outlaw texting/messaging on phones, but if the overall bill banned any non-hands-free operations, then that would have already been covered. The court disagrees, claiming (oddly) that the added provision also
served the purpose of banning non-telephone mobile devices. That may be true, but doesn't explain why that provision also
called out messaging services for telephones.
All that said, I generally agree that if you are using mapping software it is
probably a hell of a lot safer to somehow have it mounted on your dash, rather than in your hand -- but still this ruling seems to once again highlight the oddities of these particular laws, and how confusing and ineffective they can be.