People v. Spriggs: what can you do with your smartphone while you’re driving?

Here’s a California appellate court decision that may interest anyone who has a smartphone: as of yesterday, it’s established that the law against talking on a hand-held phone while driving (as distinct from using some sort of hands-free rig) is just about talking on the phone; it doesn’t extend to other uses you might make of your phone.

The facts: Mr. Spriggs was stopped in traffic, and he checked Google Maps to see if he could find a way around the traffic jam, and a cop ticketed him for violating Vehicle Code section 23123(a), which says “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.” He fought it in court on the basis that “using” in this context means “talking to someone on,” and he lost, appealed it to the appellate division*, lost again, appealed to the Court of Appeal, and won. The Court of Appeal found that while “using” is a bit on the ambiguous side, it’s really clear that this statute is just about using phones for vocal communication; it does not generally prohibit holding the phone in your hand. Link to the opinion is below.

For what it’s worth, I’ve been saying this for years. The court didn’t go here, but my argument has always been that the texting-while-driving law, Vehicle Code section 23123.5, explicitly says that it’s ok to dial telephone numbers while driving: “a person shall not be deemed to be writing, reading, or sending a text-based communication if the person reads, selects, or enters a telephone number or name in an electronic wireless communications device for the purpose of making or receiving a telephone call.” That’s kind of verbose, but it’s perfectly clear that it means, at a minimum, “dialing is ok.” So it makes absolutely zero sense that the Legislature would then also make a law that says “oh, but holding the phone in your hand is not ok.” How am I supposed to dial it, then? Lay it on the passenger seat and reach over there? That’s vastly more dangerous than just doing it the obvious way.

Anyway, the result of this case, for better or for worse, is that California’s cell-phone-while-driving laws don’t prevent you from using the navigation feature of your smartphone while driving, even if that involves holding the phone in your hand. And I think it’s reasonable to interpret it as saying that these laws don’t prohibit you from using your smartphone while driving for any purpose other than the two explicitly prohibited ones: carrying on a non-hands-free conversation (VC 23123) or “using an electronic wireless communications device to manually communicate with any person using a text-based communication” such as texting or emailing (VC 23123.5). So, for example, it looks to me like you can play Candy Crush while driving without violating either of those laws (although I hasten to add that that’s a really terrible idea and undoubtedly illegal under some other law).

I’ll add that the use of the term “manually communicate” in the anti-texting law suggests to me that it’s ok to send text messages while driving if you use voice recognition to enter the text, rather than entering it on a keyboard.  “Manually” must mean something; there’s a general rule that legislatures don’t put words into statutes unless they have a good reason to.  And it seems pretty reasonable to me to suppose that “manually” means what it actually means: using the hands, as distinct from some other body part.  But that’s still an open question.  Up until yesterday, anyone who was voice-texting would have been cited under VC 23123, because up until yesterday everyone assumed that VC 23123 meant that you couldn’t have the phone in your hands at all.  So now that we know it doesn’t mean that any more, the question of whether voice-texting counts as “manually communicating” is up for grabs.

(* Footnote from above: in California, “appellate division” means a lower-level appellate court that hears initial appeals from misdemeanor and infraction cases. It’s part of the trial court system rather than the Court of Appeal. The phrase might be confusing to people from New York; there, “appellate division” means the intermediate appellate court, what we mean by “Court of Appeal.” New York is weird.)


3 thoughts on “People v. Spriggs: what can you do with your smartphone while you’re driving?

  1. Research has shown that hands-free phone conversations while driving are almost as dangerous as hands-occupied. Conversing with someone outside the car effects your concentration in a way that conversing with someone inside the car does not.

    But I’m talking about the real world, not the law.

    • Of course, all this research that shows that hands-free devices don’t actually do any good cuts both ways, doesn’t it? If pot and alcohol are about equally dangerous, does that mean that we should legalize the pot or outlaw the alcohol? If using a hands-free device really doesn’t add to the safety, then is there any good reason for requiring them other than to line the pockets of their manufacturers?

      In any event, right, as Lincoln said, I’m just telling you what the law says, in case you might happen to be interested in knowing that. If you think it says something wrong, the email addresses of your legislative representatives are very easy to Google.

      The civil liability of manufacturers of apps meant to be used while driving is an interesting question. Of course, the great-great-granddaddy of apps meant to be used while driving is navigation systems, so I suspect any canny lawyer would want to go after Google before any of those others, since they have the deepest pockets. It’s hard to say how a case like that would go. I guarantee that you won’t be on the jury if one ever comes up, though, because your comment will be easy to find with Google, and defense counsel will sent you packing.

  2. Not just a good idea has two applications here. One is the law. The other is not maiming and killing people. The law could be a floor, not a ceiling.

    Yes, the code didn’t anticipate everything you could do with a phone in 2014. But does the code really have to spell out every way of driving dangerously?

    Talking on your phone while driving is unsafe. “Hands free” does not make it safe. If you’re talking, you’re distracted:

    How you dial might make things worse, but it’s already unsafe.

    Texting while driving is obviously unsafe. Talking into a texting app is not likely to make it safe.

    Indeed there are very few things you can do with your phone that are safe to do while you’re driving. You’re operating a lethal weapon. That app you’re using is not designed or vetted for use while driving.

    People v. Spriggs has reduced, at least for now, the tools we have as a society to discourage unsafe driving. It has not affected in any way what things are safe, what things are not safe; reality decides that, not the law.

    I would be interested in civil liability for app sellers who advertise or imply their app can be used while driving, e.g. Parker Mobile, iGasUp, HFT, Uber. Care to comment on that?

    — Jon

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