This week’s question comes from Ashley in Rockridge, who asks:
Q: “Last week, I used Casual Carpool to commute into The City. While moving slowly through the Bay Bridge maze, the driver took out his smartphone and typed in an address on a map application to get directions to a business. He then called the business, holding the phone to his ear. I voiced my concern over his lack of attention to other cars in the maze. He didn’t take kindly to me expressing an opinion on the safety of his driving and claimed the law only prohibits texting while driving. Is that right?”
A: Ashley, the answer to your question is “no.”
Before discussing California law, even if what the driver did was legal, you were correct to voice your concerns. Distracted driving constitutes a serious, nationwide public safety issue. In 2013, 3,154 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver — nearly 10 percent of all people that died in vehicle crashes in the U.S. that year — according to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis. The same year, 424,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, an almost 10 percent increase since 2011.
While everyone acknowledges the importance of attentive driving, most of us do not appreciate how dangerous it can be to take your eye off the road for even a few seconds. It takes 4.6 seconds to read or type the average text message. The California Office of Traffic Safety reports that just three seconds of driving at 65 mph is far enough to travel 100 yards. Most crashes happen with less than two seconds of reaction time.
Using a hands-free device — speakerphone, earpiece, ear buds or the car’s communications system — does not make driving safe. In fact, research shows that headset mobile phone use while driving is not substantially safer than handheld use. When you are driving, you need to have your eyes on the road, your hands on the wheel and your mind on driving.
It’s a myth that drivers can multitask well. There is no safe way to make a call while driving.
Turning back to your experience, Ashley, three statutes in California govern mobile phone use while driving. First, no driver may write, send or read text messages while behind the wheel. The law creates an exception for devices that are “specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation to dictate, send or listen to a text-based communication, and it is used in that manner while driving.” First responders are also given an exemption.
Second, California drivers may not use a mobile phone while driving unless the phone is “specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking and is used in that manner driving” or used to make an emergency call to police, fire or health care provider. Lastly, drivers under the age of 18 years may not drive while using a mobile phone even it if is equipped with a hand-free service.
Under the law, texting requires communication with another person using a text message, instant message or electronic mail. Entering a number or name into a mobile device for the purpose of making or receiving a telephone is not considered texting. Thus, by accessing and using his map application, the driver’s conduct arguably did not violate the prohibition on texting. Nor on the basis of a 2014 California appellate decision (People v. Spriggs) did the driver violate California vehicle code by looking at the map.
In Spriggs, the driver pulled out his smartphone to check a map application while stopped in heavy traffic and received a ticket. The court overturned the citation, holding the law “does not prohibit all hand-held uses of a wireless telephone. Instead, it prohibits ‘listening and talking’ on the wireless telephone unless the telephone is used in a hands-free mode.”
However, Ashley, the driver of the car in which you were a passenger violated the vehicle code when he called the business and had a conversation without using a hands-free device.
I wish to reiterate, even if a particular use of a mobile phone while driving is legal, such as accessing an application, it’s not worth it. Hundreds of thousands of serious injury crashes occur across America annually because drivers were distracted by phone calls, emails, texts and and other applications on their mobile phones.