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California court: Using smartphone maps isn't a traffic violation

Over the last few years, issues of distracted driving have become a major point of discussion and contention. Although motorists have always been susceptible to distraction, the growing prevalence of mobile devices has altered the landscape of road safety in a very serious way. Not long ago, we discussed distracted driving in relation to the emergence of wearable technology. Since that time there has been another noteworthy development, which shows how quickly this traffic safety concern is changing -- right now and in the coming years.

As it currently stands, California drivers can be ticketed for using their mobile devices to send or receive phone calls and text messages.

In 2012, a California man was given a ticket under the state's cell-phone ban when a police officer spotted him using a map app on his smartphone when he was sitting in stalled traffic. In the wake of this citation, the man launched a successful legal challenge.

A state appeals court recently tossed the man's distracted driving ticket, because current laws do not address the way he was using his phone. Since the law only makes it illegal to call and text behind the wheel, handling a phone to look at a map doesn’t fall under this category.

In taking a look at this ruling, there is a very important distinction to make: Just because something is not illegal does not mean it is safe. The reality is that a person can become just as distracted by trying to figure out a map on a smartphone as they would when trying to reply to a text message.

This decision highlights a distinction between criminal and civil law. If using a map on a mobile device distracts a driver to the point that he or she causes an accident, it may not be possible for law enforcement to issue an enforceable ticket. On the other hand, this action could be construed as negligence when a personal injury claim is filed.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Court says reading smartphone map while driving is not a crime," Robin Abcarian, Feb. 28, 2014

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