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Driving While Mapping: California Case Sets Smartphone Precedent

California case says drivers can use smartphone maps in cars without fear of getting a ticket.
Mobile World Congress: 5 Hot Gadgets
Mobile World Congress: 5 Hot Gadgets
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Thanks to Steven Spriggs's legal odyssey, drivers in California can use their smartphones as maps without the fear of being slapped with a ticket. They're still forbidden from talking on phones and sending messages when behind the wheel, though. The case highlights the growing use of mobile devices in spaces where they can put lives at risk.

Spriggs's problem began in January 2012 when he was stuck in construction-related traffic. Seeking a way around the roadblock, Spriggs grabbed his iPhone 4 and used the map app to seek a better route. Unfortunately, a police officer riding by on a motorcycle witnessed Spriggs use his phone behind the wheel and wrote him a $165 ticket. California law prohibits drivers from using mobile phones when motoring. Fortunately for Spriggs, the law isn't particularly clear on the subject, and that's what eventually helped Spriggs escape the ticket.

Spriggs lost his initial case in traffic court, as well as an appeal with the Fresno County Superior Court. After serving as his own counsel and losing the first two cases, a law firm stepped in to help pro bono. The case eventually made it to the 5th District Court of Appeals, which reversed the Fresno County ruling. When Spriggs was cited, California law said that "listening and talking" on cellphones was illegal, but that left plenty of room for other, legal uses of smartphones when driving. (Texting was later made illegal.) Spriggs was vindicated because he wasn't listening or talking, and was instead using the device's navigation features.

[More trouble ahead for mobile device users? See Google Glass Prompts Attack, Woman Claims.]

This doesn't mean Spriggs is in favor of distracted driving. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Spriggs's own son suffered a broken leg when hit by a driver talking on the phone. "We're distracted all the time," Spriggs said in an interview with the Associated Press. "If our distractions cause us to drive erratically, we should be arrested for driving erratically." Twelve states, plus Washington D.C., prohibit drivers from talking on cellphones without hands-free equipment. Most also prohibit drivers from texting (or sending any sort of message) from behind the wheel.

The maps case closely follows that of a California woman who was cited for using Google Glass while driving. Cecilia Abadie was pulled over for speeding in San Diego last October and given a ticket for using Google Glass. Abadie contested the ticket, arguing that she was simply wearing Google Glass, not actively using it. San Diego commissioner John Blair agreed with Abadie and dismissed the ticket.

It is easy to understand why the officers involved in both cases wrote the tickets. They felt the drivers involved were distracted by the devices at hand. The cases also call attention to the vagaries of law and what happens when they are not specific enough. Some might argue that there's little difference in typing a message or typing a street address on their phone when driving. Either activity can be distracting.

Wearable devices will surely compound the problem. This week saw a slew of new wearable announcements from consumer electronics makers. How will smartwatches and fitness bands be regulated, if at all? How does tablet use factor in? There's no doubt that distracted driving endangers lives. Finding the balance in legislating -- and, more importantly, enforcing -- the use of mobile technology in cars is going be nettlesome at best.

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