By Lawrence A. Ajalat
Thanks to California Vehicle Code § 23123(a), California drivers can only “use” a cell phone while driving if the phone is “configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.” Given that today’s cell phones are mini-computers that allow us to do a lot more than just “listen and talk”, the question is whether that law prohibits all hands-on “uses” of a cell phone. That is, can you check your bank account? Or look at a map? Or play Candy Crush?! That question has now been answered by the Court of Appeal.
After Steven Spriggs was ticketed for holding his cell phone while looking at a map in order to find an alternate route in heavy traffic, he fought the citation. He felt strongly that the law, as written, did not apply to the way he was holding, and using, his phone. He lost in the trial court and lost his first appeal. He then appealed to California’s 5th District Court of Appeals. The Court recognized that the law prohibits use of a telephone unless the telephone allows for “hands-free listening and talking”. The Court analyzed the Legislative intent and found that the main reason the law was created was to avoid the physical and mental distractions that result from engaging in a conversation on a hand-held phone. The Court focused on the words “listening and talking” and noted that if the Legislature wanted to prohibit all uses of the telephone, it should have prohibited use of a telephone unless it allows for complete “hands-free operation” or “hands-free use”. Ultimately, the Court agreed that the law doesn’t apply to looking at maps while driving. Arguably, to the extent any use does not involve “listening and talking,” it would not be prohibited under this law.
But before you start holding your cell phone and playing Angry Birds while driving, there are a few important things to be aware of: First, sending and reading text messages while driving is prohibited under a different law; second, minors can’t use any electronic devices at all for any purpose at all, even if hands-free, while driving; and third, there are still “catch-all” laws such as “reckless driving” and “speed unsafe for conditions”, so you can still be ticketed for distracted driving, regardless of what’s distracting you.