Checking GPS maps on your phone behind the wheel? Not anymore, says California court

Driving distracted - Martinson & Beason, P.C.In recent years, state legislatures and law enforcement across the country have been cracking down on distracted driving, a growing problem in the U.S. that causes thousands of accidents every year. 3,331 were killed in distracted driving related accidents in 2011—accounting for about 1 in 10 car accident fatalities, according to In 2012, Alabama’s texting ban went into effect. Our state’s law is one of the tougher laws in the nation, as it allows “primary enforcement.” This means that law enforcement can pull over a driver for texting alone—the driver does not need to be committing another offense, like speeding, to receive a ticket.

Though prohibiting writing, sending, or reading text or data through “manual input,” the Alabama law does not ban non-novice drivers from using a cell phone for other purposes, like talking and using a phone’s GPS.

However, a recent court ruling has found that California’s law does prohibit the use of GPS. The California court stated that using a cell phone to check a GPS or mapping program while drivingis a violation of the state’s law against distracted driving, which already outlaws all handheld cell phone use. The court suggested that, while using a GPS program is technically allowed, it must be done in a hands-free manner.

The ruling highlights the quandary that courts and law enforcement are now finding themselves in. Many distracted driving laws expressly mention some actions (like texting) while omitting others (like programming your phone’s GPS while driving), leading to a legal gray area that caused the case in California.

Texting, talking on the phone, and using mapping services are just a few of the behaviors that distract people from driving. We hope that texting and cell phone bans will reduce the tragically high number of deaths on our nation’s highways. But we all have to wonder if these bans go far enough. What about other distracting behavior—eating, talking to passengers, changing the radio station, using paper maps? All of these are still legal, yet they are distracting behaviors that have the potential to cause car accidents. Perhaps the answer lies in not just legislating driver behavior but improving driver education to effectively relay the dangers of distracted driving.

Do you think that Alabama should toughen the distracted driving law to include all cell phone use and other distracting behaviors?