Will using GPS on your cellphone while driving soon be banned?

Troy Anderson

A first-time court case in California that bans drivers from using the GPS function on their cellphones could lead to similar bans throughout the nation, experts say.

The traffic ticket case comes as police in a growing number of states are already giving people tickets for talking or texting on their phones while driving.

"(Being ticketed for using GPS on a cellphone) is only in one county now, but there are probably going to be other court cases," says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association in Washington, D.C.

Is using GPS while driving illegal?

The case in question occurred on Jan. 5, 2012 when Steve Spriggs was stopped on a Highway 41 traffic jam near downtown Fresno at dusk and grabbed his cellphone to check the GPS map for a route around a construction delay.

Alerted by the glowing iPhone 4 screen, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer pulled Spriggs over and gave him a $159 ticket for driving a vehicle while using a wireless telephone.

Under California law, drivers are not allowed to use cellphones while driving unless the driver is using a hands-free listening device.

Spriggs, 58, challenged the ticket in court, but the judge let the ticket stand. Afterwards, Spriggs filed an appeal, alleging the law "fails to prohibit driving while viewing an image on a map on an electronic device."

But a three-judge Superior Court panel upheld the ticket.

According to Fresno County Superior Court Judge H. Kent Hamlin, the panel concluded that a driver using his or her hands to operate a phone was the distraction that needed to be avoided. "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," Hamlin added.

Harsha agrees: "The issue isn't using GPS; the issue is manipulating the cellphone while driving."

Spriggs, who graduated from law school but is not a practicing attorney, says the judge has introduced a "novel theory of that law" and as a result - the law in Fresno County now bans "any use of an electronically hand-held device that we have with us when we're driving."

Believing the ruling was unfair, Spriggs has appealed to the 5th District Court of Appeals.

"If I lose at the 5th District level, then everybody in the 5th District would be covered under this new interpretation of the law," Spriggs says, adding that if he appealed before the California Supreme Court and lost, then the law would apply to everyone in California.

Legal implications

The case comes amid a growing national debate about distracted driving. Some studies suggest texting bans don't reduce fatal crashes, but others have found the laws are "moderately successful." So far, 39 states, Washington, D.C. and Guam have banned text messaging for all drivers. Meanwhile, 10 states, Washington, D.C. and the Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The consequences of distracted driving

Despite these laws and warnings that the use of electronic devices while driving can lead to crashes, injuries and even death, a recent survey by the NHTSA found 660,000 drivers are using cellphones while driving at any given daylight moment in America. In 2011, more than 3,000 people were killed and 387,000 were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the NHTSA.

The use of cellphones while driving impairs reaction times and nearly quadruples the risk of crashing, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. AAA recommends motorists turn off their phones before driving or pull over to a safe place to talk, send texts or email. When using the GPS function on their phones, AAA recommends people program the GPS while parked to automatically give them audible, turn-by-turn directions so they don't have to look at the phone while driving. AAA is involved in a campaign in those states that do not have texting bans to promote passage of laws banning text messaging while driving.

Marie Montgomery, spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California, says her organization recommends that people shouldn't use their cellphones at all while driving.

"Anything that takes your eyes off the road for more than two seconds will double your risk of a crash," Montgomery says.

At this point, the ruling in Sprigg's case only applies to drivers in Fresno County, but Montgomery and Harsha say that could change. Currently, the insurance rates of drivers who receive tickets for talking or texting on their cellphones in California are not affected, Montgomery said.

But Montgomery said car insurance rates could be affected if similar bans occur in other states where drivers get DMV "points" when ticketed for using their cellphones while driving.