Saturday, September 7, 2013

Does Using A Wireless Phone to Read a Map While Driving Violate The Vehicle Code?

This question was taken up by the Appellate Division of the California Superior Court in Fresno County earlier this year, and it resulted in the published decision entitled People v. Spriggs (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th Supp.1.  California Vehicle Code § 23123(a) says that a person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone, unless the phone is configured and used for hands-free listening and talking.  A driver was cited by the CHP for looking at a map on his cell phone while holding the phone in his hand.  The officer and driver agreed at the trial that these facts indeed occurred.  The driver was convicted, and he appealed.
On appeal, the driver argued that he did not violate the Vehicle Code when he held the phone, because he was not conversing, or listening and talking.  The appellate court disagreed, stating that “the primary evil sought to be avoided is the distraction the driver faces when using his or her hands to operate the phone. 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 e-mails.”  The Appellate Division further held that neither a plain reading of the statute, or its legislative history support the conclusion that Vehicle Code § 23123(a) “was designed to prohibit hands-on use of a wireless telephone for conversation only.” 

The appellate court concluded that the statute focuses on the distraction a driver faces when using his or her hands to operate a phone, whether by talking, or for other uses.  The court quoted the state Assembly analysis of the bill which led to the statute, showing that the intent of the law was to reduce motor vehicle accidents in California by improving reaction time in the event of an emergency by requiring both hands to be on the wheel.  The Appellate Division said that according to their plain reading of the statute, it was clear that the California legislature intended to prohibit the use of a wireless device while driving, whether for phone use, the use of a map application, or any other use, as this should help to reduce car accidents.