California court: Smartphone map app illegal for drivers same as texting

Under California law, all drivers are prohibited from talking on a handheld cellphone. California also bans texting behind the wheel for all motorists. But, in this day and age, handheld electronic devices have capabilities that extend far beyond the simple talk and text features of cellphones of the past. Can California drivers legally use apps, access content and perform other actions on their phones as long as they stay away from talking and texting?

A new California appeals court ruling makes it inescapably clear that the state's ban on mobile phone use behind the wheel is not just for talking and texting; any driver who uses a handheld mobile device is asking for a ticket, and whether in violation of the law or not, could be held liable by victims if his or her distraction causes an accident.

Intent of legislature was to limit handheld phone use, regardless of form it takes

The recent case came out of an incident in which 58-year-old Steven Spriggs was using his phone's GPS map to look for a way to avoid a traffic jam. Spriggs was pulled over and issued a $160 ticket for distracted driving.

California's electronic distraction law prohibits drivers 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." Spriggs was neither listening nor talking, but was using a map application; he argued that the statute was aimed only at communicative behavior like texting or talking, and thus did not apply to his conduct.

The Appellate Division Superior Court took a different view. "Our review of the statute's plain language leads us to conclude that the primary evil sought to be avoided is the distraction the driver faces when using his or her hands to operate the phone," wrote Judge W. Kent Hamlin, author of the opinion. "That distraction would be present whether the wireless telephone was being used as a telephone, a GPS navigator, a clock or a device for sending and receiving text messages and emails."

What matters, according to the court, is that legislative intent and "common sense" indicate that any use of a wireless device by drivers that is not hands free is meant to be illegal. Legal authorities have indicated that this ruling could have a great impact on distracted driving enforcement in California.

The new ruling coincidentally dovetails with national distracted driving awareness month, which is held every April. In observance of distracted driving awareness month, the California Highway Patrol holds an annual crackdown on behind the wheel cellphone use. According to the California Highway Patrol, 57,000 tickets were written during last April's sweep.

Injured by a distracted driver? You may have a right to compensation

The clarified scope of California's electronic distraction statute and the enhanced enforcement efforts during April both have potential to reduce the number of distracted driving injuries and deaths. Yet, distracted driving crashes still happen. When they do, the driver who is at fault for causing the accident can be held accountable for resulting damages - even if his or her conduct was not technically illegal under California's cellphone ban.

If you or a family member has been injured by a distracted driver, get in touch with a motor vehicle accident attorney. No amount of money can erase a painful experience, but fair compensation can take care of medical bills and help get you through a tough time. Call an attorney today to learn how to secure the full compensation to which you are entitled.

Our founding attorney, Scott J. Corwin, has more than 25 years of experience in representing accident victims injured in all forms of motor vehicle accidents, whether by a negligent driver texting or using his cell phone or otherwise, for automobile, motorcycle, truck, pedestrian and bicycle accidents, in the Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, San Diego, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and throughout the state of California.