Examining the Details of Distracted Driving Law

While driving safety is without question a multi-faceted affair, there is often one “trendy” topic capturing headlines. The importance of seatbelts and the danger of drinking and driving are two topics that led safety discussions for a period before becoming a given, accepted, almost assumed part of safe driving. Currently, the dangers of distracted driving, especially the danger of using mobile devices while driving, is the topic dominating headlines. While the danger of distracted driving is generally recognized, a lot of the details involving new technology are still being worked out. Our San Jose distracted driving injury lawyer is concerned about a recent decision in this arena and vows to hold distracted drivers accountable, regardless of whether the specific distraction is a violation of criminal law.

Court: Law Does Not Forbid Looking at a Map on a Smart Phone
In late February, a state appeals court in Fresno handed down an important ruling interpreting the state’s law on using mobile devices while behind the wheel. The case, discussed in the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle, began when Steven Spriggs of Fresno was pulled over for using his iPhone during a traffic jam. Spriggs was looking at a map on his phone to try to find an alternative route around roadwork when the California Highway Patrol officer ticketed him, using a 2006 section of the vehicle code that bars drivers from using cellphones that are not hands-free to support the $165 fine.

phone.jpgSpriggs disputed the ticket, suggesting that the law did not cover his behavior. While he lost in traffic court and the Fresno County Superior Court, the 5th District Court of Appeal sided with Spriggs and concluded the Legislature did not intend for the law to cover a driver looking at a cellphone map. The court, in a 3-0 ruling, found the 2006 law only prohibits voice calls using a handheld phone. Justice Levy cited a portion of the law referencing “hands-free listening and talking” and suggested a later law prohibiting texting wouldn’t have been necessary if the 2006 statute covered all forms of mobile phone use. Additionally, the decision noted a broad reading might penalize checking the time on your phone or even using it as a paperweight.

The decision may not be the final word. The ruling could be appealed to the state Supreme Court, other appeals courts might reach contrary decisions, and the Legislature could amend the law. Additionally, CHP representatives suggested that a distracted driving citation could allow an officer to ticket similar behavior.

Focusing on Safety and Accountability
We agree with Chris Cochran, a California Office of Traffic Safety spokesman cited by the Mercury News, who suggested someone using a GPS-style device should set it prior to beginning the drive and should pull over if it needs to be changed. We hope the ruling does not encourage people to test the limits of the criminal law and engage in dangerous behaviors.

We also note that the fact that an act is not criminal does not mean it cannot be the basis of a civil claim. If a distracted driver, regardless of the form of distraction (ex. a mobile device, a physical map, a dropped snack item, children fighting in the backseat…), caused a crash that injured you or a loved one, you may have a civil claim. Call us at our Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, or Santa Rosa injury law offices to learn more. Together we can hold the at-fault driver accountable and obtain monetary compensation for your injuries or loss.

See Related Blog Posts:
New Technology May Lead to More Distracted Drivers
Underreporting of Cellphone Use While Driving

(Photo by Ian Lamont)