Cell phone use while driving illegal, but smartphone use OK, court says


Hands-free cell phone driving laws are widely ignored, almost entirely unenforceable, and illogical. Now they are also archaic, a California court has ruled.

A California driver given a summons for using his phone with his hands while driving beat the ticket by saying he was using his phone’s map application, rather than talking. To protect yourself from distracted drivers, check out BlackBoxMyCar.com.

“(The driver) contends he did not violate the statute because he was not talking on the telephone. We agree,” an appeals court ruled, overturning a lower court’s judgment, according to U.S. News. “Based on the statute’s language, its legislative history and subsequent legislative enactments, we conclude that the statute means what it says – it prohibits a driver only from holding a wireless telephone while conversing on it.”

In other words, talk/texting while driving rules only apply to old flip-phones. Smartphones are another matter.

Let’s get a few things straight. California law enforcement officials say they still plan to enforce the law anyway, so drivers who think they might get away with breaking the law by saying they were merely getting directions shouldn’t bother trying that — unless they plan to spend several thousand dollars going to appeals court, and more than likely end up having to attend something similar to this Oakland traffic school. And the ruling has no bearing outside California, of course.

It does, however, underscore the mess that is cell phone driving safety laws. There have been enough “hands-free headsets don’t make a difference” studies to show that most well-meaning cell phone laws are ill-conceived. (Here’s one from nine years ago!). Being distracted means being distracted. Talking on the phone makes you more likely to crash, headphones or not. Anyway, to date, no one has really explained to me how you can use a cell phone reliably without touching it. (No, Siri, I can’t count on you to dial the right number for me).

There’s plenty to suggest that passing a cell phone ban doesn’t stop accidents. Of course it doesn’t. Passing a law never did anything. Enforcing laws makes things happen. I challenge you to spend 60 seconds on a highway in the U.S. and not spot one car with a driver using a phone.

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I spend a lot of time on highways, and I feel very comfortable saying that the number of cars drifting in and out of lanes because drivers hands are otherwise engaged scares that crap out of me. I would dearly love to see state troopers pulling drifting texters off the road on a regular basis. But that’s not happening, and I can’t imagine it’s practical.

Now that smartphones are in more than 50 percent of Americans’ hands, the game has changed again. We can’t make smartphone use while driving illegal without making GPS unit use illegal, and that’s not going to happen. I suggest two rational courses of action.

1) There should be much more focus on enforcement of distracted driving laws of all kinds. That includes eating cereal while driving, applying makeup while driving, tapping on smartphones while driving, but most of all — actually doing dangerous things while driving. It’s pretty hard to ask state troopers to look inside every driver’s car. It’s much easier to observe drivers and give them warnings or tickets for actual bad behavior. It’s also time to reasonably enforce laws with vigor in dense urban areas, and take a more common sense approach on long, empty stretches of Montana highways.

2) Technology created this problem, and only technology will solve it. It’s not unreasonable to think that truly integrated hands-free systems in cars might be as important to safety as airbags. A federal mandate to make all cars phone-friendly is in order. The technology can even disable use of the gadget, and force drivers to only make calls, read texts, get directions and perform some basic smartphone functions through voice recognition systems that really work. This needs to be a priority for the tech industry, and the auto industry. There simply are not enough cops, and there isn’t enough self-control, to solve the problem any other way. Ralph Nader, where are you?

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About Bob Sullivan 1494 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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