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Court Rules That Hands-Free Cell Phone Restriction Applies to GPS Function

April 17, 2013

Anyone who follows this blog knows that our Georgia personal injury law firm takes the issue of distracted driving very seriously. Texting or talking on a cell phone can divert a driver’s concentration, hands and eyes from the important task of driving safely. However, a recent appellate court decision out of California indicates the potential dilemma facing policymakers when enacting laws on the issue of distracted driving. The appellate court found that utilizing the mapping function on a cell phone constituted a violation of the state’s “hands-free law” in upholding a driver’s conviction for distracted driving.

As an initial matter, it is important to understand that the laws on cell phone use in Georgia differ from the one’s this appellate court was considering. In that state, texting by all drivers is completely banned unless it is hands free or voice controlled. Those under age 18 are banned from any use of wireless phones while those over 18 must use hands-free calling. In applying that state’s hands-free law, the court reasoned that the legislature did not include language limiting the hands-free law to texting and voice calls. In Georgia, the issue might turn out differently because Georgia does not restrict adults (18+) from using cell phones for calling.

The more important policy question is whether lawmakers should ban all use of portable communication devices while driving. It is reasonable to presume that such a measure might make the roads of Georgia safer in a variety of ways. Any prohibition that empowers law enforcement to issue tickets for use of a cell phone or any portable electronic communication device would presumably have “some” impact on behavior. However, a global ban of this nature would also have the additional benefit of making it easier to enforce cell phone texting and talking laws. A key enforcement challenge for police is posed by the many non-prohibited functions that smart phones offer, which includes GPS navigation. If all uses of a cell phone are banned, then presumably it would be easier to cite and successfully prosecute those who violate bans on cell phone use while driving.

Despite the merits of this position, there is certainly an argument that a global ban on portable communication devices like cell phones might make certain types of collisions more likely. If you have ever been behind a driver who is trying to study a map or directions spread out on the front seat or dashboard, you understand this risk. Drivers that are receiving audible instructions to turn left in 30 feet are probably much safer than those studying a map or sheet of paper with written directions.

The other aspect of this issue that must be considered is whether the hands-free component adds any safety benefit to cell phone restrictions. Studies conducted in a number of states that impose these types of restrictions have shown that hands-free use of a cell phone is no safer than when drivers use a handheld cell phone.

One answer might lie in improvements in technology that would allow cell phones to be placed in “driving mode,” which would only allow audible and voice activated functions like announcing directions, reading a book out loud or permitting voice navigation of the phone. This might allow those injured in car accidents to obtain discovery of cell records that could indicate whether a phone was in “driving mode” during a collision. Given the lack of effectiveness of hand-held cell phone bans, this approach would need to be tested to determine whether it actually prevents auto accidents.

The key point for policymakers enacting distracted driving laws is that they must stay focused on the end result, which is reducing the number of motor vehicle collisions. We support laws that further this end by making our friends, neighbors and loved ones who travel the roads of Georgia safer.

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Category: Personal Injury

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Many of our blog articles discuss the law. All information provided about the law is very general in nature and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Every situation is different, and should be analyzed by a lawyer who can provide individualized advice based on the facts involved in your unique situation, and a consideration of all of the nuances of the statutes and case law that apply at the time.