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Are Mobile Map Applications Guiding People into Trouble with the Law?

By Keith Stachowiak on September 25, 2013 // Leave a Comment

Growing up, when we went on a family road trip, we would always make sure to have a map with us in the glove compartment. Several years ago, when global positioning system (GPS) technology became more affordable and widely used, an actual paper map was thrown into the glove compartment and rarely used. Now, at a time where most people have a smartphone with built in GPS, both maps and other GPS systems have become almost obsolete.

While this new technology is undoubtedly beneficial, there are dangers to the increase in use of mobile map applications. Over the last decade, many states have recognized the high number of automobile accidents resulting from distracted driving and have taken steps to reduce the distractions through legislation. For example, Wisconsin’s inattentive driving statute says, “No person may drive . . . any motor vehicle while composing or sending an electronic text message or an electronic mail message.” Wis. Stat. § 346.89(3)(a) (2013). This statute has been interpreted to place a ban on texting while driving, however, it does not mention mobile map applications.

California has a broader statute with respect to using a cell phone while driving than Wisconsin. The California statute reads, “A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.” Cal. Veh. Code § 23123(a) (West). Although this statute does not explicitly address mobile map applications, it has been interpreted to ban the use of map applications while driving. In People v. Spriggs, 2013, 154 Cal. Rptr. 3d 883, 884, 215 Cal. App. 4th Supp. 1, 2, a law enforcement officer cited Steven R. Spriggs for looking at the map application on his cell phone while driving and holding the phone in his hand. The trial court convicted Mr. Spriggs for violating § 23123 and the appellate court agreed with the conviction. Id. at 883, 215 Cal. App. 4th Supp. at 1. The appellate court said, “This statute . . . is specifically designed to prevent a driver from using a wireless telephone while driving unless the device is being used in a hands-free manner.” Id. at 887, 215 Cal. App. 4th Supp. At 7. Therefore, regardless of why a person is holding a cell phone or how the person is using the cell phone, the California legislature intended enhance safety on the road by prohibiting drivers from using a cell phone while driving.

The Wisconsin inattentive driving statute has not yet been interpreted to ban the use of mobile map applications, it is a possibility for the near future. If the intent of the Wisconsin legislature was similar to the intent of the California legislature, it is likely that entering text or using a map application is not all that different from composing or sending a text message. However, from a practical standpoint, it may be more difficult to enforce this law in Wisconsin than in California at this time because Wisconsin does not have a ban on using a cell phone for talking for all drivers. For example, in California, if a law enforcement officer sees someone with a cell phone in their hand while driving, the person has violated the California statute. In Wisconsin on the other hand, a driver can still use the cell phone for talking on the phone, which would make it more difficult to enforce the law.

Lastly, in both Wisconsin and California, there is an exception to the distracted driving statutes, which allows for hands-free use of a cell phone. California’s statute allows for cell phone use if the device has hands-free capabilities and the driver is using the phone in a hands-free way. Wisconsin’s statute allows for texting or composing emails if the driver uses a voice-operated or hands-free device as long as the driver does not have to use his or her hands “to operate the device, except to activate or deactivate a feature or function of the device.” Wis. Stat. § 346.89(3)(b)(4) (2013). As the law evolves, it will be interesting to see how the courts interpret the statute. For example, if I use a device to mount my cell phone on the dash of my vehicle, may I use the Siri application to send text messages since I only have to push a button to activate Siri and then continue using the application hands free?

In general, California is known for paving the way for new laws. Will Wisconsin follow California’s example and pass more restrictive statutes on cell phone usage while driving? As the laws change, technology will also change and in the next generation it is possible that mobile map applications with GPS capability will also become obsolete.