Smartphone GPS and Other Tinkering While Driving Allowed by Court

By William Peacock, Esq. on March 04, 2014 | Last updated on December 13, 2021

You can't, absent a handsfree kit, talk on a phone while driving. You can't text or email. But you can do anything and everything else with your smartphone while driving. Kinda.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals, late last week, examined California's hands-free statute and held that it only applies to "listening and talking," not any use of a phone whatsoever. Does this mean navigation software, music, and pretty much any other app is fair game on the streets of the Golden State?

At least under this one statute, that may be the case.

Driving While Mapping

Steven Spriggs, of Fresno, was driving along when he hit construction. He did what many of us would do in such a situation and pulled out his phone to find an alternate route. Instead, he found a Highway Patrol officer at his side, handing him a ticket for violating § 23123(a).

He appealed the ticket and lost, at least until he reached the Fifth Appellate District, where he argued that "he did not violate the [hands-free] statute because he was not talking on the telephone."

Hands-Free Listening and Talking

The Fifth Appellate District's holding was short and sweet: "We agree." The court then elaborated, using a plain text interpretation of the hands-free statute:

"[The] statute specifically states the telephone must be used in a manner that allows for "hands-free listening and talking." (§ 23123(a).) It does not state that it must be used in a manner that allows for hands-free looking, hands-free operation or hands-free use, or for anything other than listening and talking. Had the Legislature intended to prohibit drivers from holding the telephone and using it for all purposes, it would not have limited the telephone's required design and configuration to "hands-free listening and talking," but would have used broader language, such as "hands-free operation" or "hands-free use."

CHP: Cite for Distracted Driving

On its face, the court's opinion would seem to mean that playing Angry Birds while driving is perfectly acceptable. But a representative from the CHP told the San Jose Mercury-News that the department had other means of curbing smartphone use or other distracted driving.

While there doesn't seem to be a specific distracted driving provision in the Vehicle Code, the CHP previously explained to the Los Angeles Times that the basic speed law, which prohibits driving faster than is safe in prevailing conditions, can apply.

How fast is safe when shaving while driving, eating a burger, or playing with your smartphone, is apparently a matter of unfettered discretion for the CHP officer.

Related Resources:

Copied to clipboard