updated 08:40 pm EST, Thu February 27, 2014
Bans on non-hands-free talking, texting stand; other uses not expressly forbidden
A case where a California driver was ticketed for "distracted driving" because he was consulting a map app for an alternate route while stuck in traffic has resulted in a victory for the driver. The Fifth District Court of Appeals found that a strict interpretation of the law, which bans talking or "listening" on a cell phone without a hands-free device for drivers, and also bars sending or receiving texts, did not cover other app use.
The decision was applied to the use of mapping apps, but throws open the door to other app uses that the current version of the law doesn't explicitly disallow. As a result, the law may later be modified to clarify what constitutes "distracted" but may also need to explicitly apply the behavior to vehicles in motion -- Steven Spriggs of Fresno, the plaintiff in the case, was allegedly stopped by a road work-based traffic jam when he accessed his smartphone in an attempt to find an alternate route, according to media reports.
The decision reversed a lower-court ruling, and may proceed on to the state's Supreme Court for resolution. The law was intended to stop the two biggest cellphone-based distractions to drivers, as well as other problems such as playing games or updating Facebook. The judges in the appeal found that the law in its present form doesn't go far enough in clarifying what is or isn't acceptable usage in certain situations. Spriggs arguably could have received the ticket for using the phone to dial 911 for witnessing an accident, under the previous interpretation of the statute.
Enforcement of a more broad interpretation of the law is likely to continue, as California tries to cut down on generally distracted driving, the state's second-leading cause of accidents behind alcohol/drug abuse. Defendants, however, may be able to employ the court's decision that the law is too narrowly crafted as a defense if they can show that they were not engaged in either of the specifically-prohibited activities -- at least until the law is either modified or complemented by additional offenses based on the overall concept of what constitutes "distracted" driving.