A California appeals court today reversed a decision against a driver who was ticketed for looking at a map on his cellphone to find an alternate route around traffic.
The court found that the law prohibits listening and talking on the phone, as well as texting while driving, without using a hands-free device — but the law doesn’t say anything that would ban looking at a map app.
Though it could still be appealed, the ruling is important given the broad popularity of mapping applications, whose main value is helping people navigate while they are with their phones, on the go.
What’s interesting is the decision specifically refers to the legality of the act of “looking at or checking a map.”
But c’mon — looking is not really all you do when you use Waze or Google Maps or your map application of choice. Rerouting around a traffic jam generally requires more than just a glance at your phone.
(Mapping apps do make some efforts around driver safety; for instance, Apple Maps takes over the lock screen during navigation, and Waze asks people in a moving vehicle to confirm they are a passenger before they are allowed to type. And all the apps can be controlled by voice. But still.)
While the court decision doesn’t really address this particular point, it does refer to a 2012 clarification to the law that allowed drivers to “physically touch a speaker phone or other wireless communication device (e.g., Bluetooth speaker) to initiate or end contact with the other party.” The decision also notes that “surfing the Internet” from a phone while driving is not specifically banned.
But is it safe and should it be legal to touch the screen to open a maps app, pinch to zoom and navigate to a menu that provides alternate routes? That seems slightly more important for the court and the law to clarify.