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California Appellate Court Rules It's Okay for Drivers to Use Mobile Phone Maps

A state appeals court in California ruled that while it may be illegal to text-message or talk on a mobile phone while driving, it is not illegal to use the mobile phone as a navigation device. A Fresno driver was pulled over and given a $165 ticket after a highway patrol officer observed him using his smartphone to look at a map. According to, this marks “the first appellate interpretation of a 2006 state law that restricts handheld uses of a mobile telephone while driving.”

The law was passed before the smartphone revolution that made the device much more than a phone, although there were some rudimentary navigation services on older devices. However, the law does allow for hands-free use of the phone, via headset or Bluetooth interface, so limits to the kinds of distractions that are illegal were written in at the start.

One does not need quantitative statistics to reach the conclusion that if a driver becomes distracted, he or she is more likely to be involved in an accident. However, some distractions are unavoidable, while others are simply calculated risks. For example, driving while talking on the phone is a distraction because no matter how one does it, some part of one's attention will be off of the road. Hands-free conversations allow the driver to keep both hands on the wheel, limiting the distraction but not removing it completely.

To try to legislate against all distractions would be counterproductive and might sour the public against the idea of any such regulation. Blanket bans against the usage of mobile devices seem to be over-cautious at best, with many critics identifying them as another example of the “nanny state.” Since looking at a paper map is perfectly legal while driving, it makes sense that looking at a digital map should be treated in the same way, especially considering the audio features of many navigation applications.

Instead, it seems laws like “Jake’s Law” in Maryland have gotten it right. According to WBAL, the law’s main goal is "to create tougher penalties for drivers who cause crashes as a result of using their cellphone while driving.” This treats device-related distracted driving much like drunk driving, wherein the penalties come as a result of recklessness on the road and do not rely on officers to actively police the inside of motorists’ vehicles. 


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