The Fifth District Court of Appeals ruled last week that California drivers could check maps on their cellphones while driving.
The case stemmed from a Fresno-area man getting a ticket for using a handheld phone when a CHP officer saw him while stopped in traffic. The man claimed that he was using his maps program and won. The court ruled that the Legislature only intended to ban using handheld phones when conversing by voice or text. There’s no specific law banning the use of other features.
Since I’m a longtime critic of these laws, this wasn’t surprising. I often hold my cellphone when I’m using GPS to map routes. I never worried about being ticketed for it.
Now isn’t it absurd that one can look for directions on their smartphone while driving but cannot glance at a text message? Mapping out directions takes longer than reading a text message, but one is OK and the other will get you a fat ticket. What?
While I’m all for safer driving, I’ve often thought these distracted driver laws would be difficult to enforce. When California banned talking on handheld cellphones, I thought it was a knee-jerk reaction. (Of course, one couldn’t help but wonder if Bluetooth headset manufacturers were behind the push.) I thought it was sketchy, because study after study shows that talking on a hands-free device while driving is no different from talking while holding a phone to your ear. So how does this make us safer?
Plus, a study in 2010 involving four states found that crashes increased after texting bans. The reason is probably that texters hold their phones lower as to not be ticketed, focusing their vision downward. Previously they held their phones at eye level. This is the law of unintended consequences in action.
While no one wants distracted drivers on the road, I think that Fairfielders would rather have police rounding up murder suspects, cleaning up neighborhoods and getting drunks out of parks than checking to see if a driver is using Google maps or texting someone.
The problem with any law succeeding is compliance and enforcement. While this ruling gives cover to those who need to use their phones to get to new destinations, it makes enforcement of texting laws or talking on one’s handset harder to enforce. Now everyone busted texting is liable to claim they were checking their maps or using GPS, citing the recent Fifth Court of Appeals case.
Drivers hold their phones for other reasons as well. They check the time, look up phone numbers, change songs (for those who have their phone plugged into their stereo), take photos, ask Siri or Google Now a question, use voice texting and play games. I’m not saying it’s smart, but people do it.
To fix this, the Legislature would have to take the step of making it flat-out illegal to hold a phone while driving. That would mean people would need to map their destination before driving and, what I often do, set their phone down on the seat and use voice directions (if their phone supports it). Banning holding phones would make it easier for law enforcement to enforce the law. It’s black or white. Either you were holding the phone while driving or not.
Once that’s done, what about other distractions? What about eating, drinking, smoking, changing CDs, reading mail, reading paper maps, shaving, doing makeup and looking backward while driving and shouting at your kids to not make you stop the car? Peace.
Kelvin Wade is the author of “Morsels” Vols. I and II and lives in Fairfield. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.