Mobile Phones Are Moving Targets

This 2014 phone is wildly different from the phones contemplated by California law in 2006.

Photo by PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images

Two years ago, when he was stuck in traffic, Peter Spriggs of Fresno, Calif., pulled out his iPhone to look for an alternative route. A cop saw him do it and ticketed him for violating Section 23123(a) of the California Vehicle Code, which restricts hand-held use of mobile phones. Spriggs fought the ticket, and yesterday, in the state’s 5th District Court of Appeal, he beat it. The case illustrates how hard it is for laws to keep up with technology.


Here’s the text of the statute in question:

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.

In court, the state argued that the statute


allows ‘using’ a wireless ‘telephone while driving if the telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.’  Otherwise, using a wireless telephone while driving is prohibited.

The court rejected this argument. The statute, it pointed out,

does not state that [a phone] must be used in a manner that allows for hands-free looking, hands-free operation or hands-free use, or for anything other than listening and talking. Had the Legislature intended to prohibit drivers from holding the telephone and using it for all purposes, it would not have limited the telephone’s required design and configuration to “hands-free listening and talking,” but would have used broader language, such as “hands-free operation” or “hands-free use.”


That’s pretty convincing. So why didn’t the legislature do that? Why didn’t it address “hands-free operation” in general? In its opinion, the court explained that

although the Legislature was concerned about the distraction caused by operating a wireless telephone while holding it, the Legislature’s focus was on prohibiting holding the telephone only while carrying on a conversation, not while using it for any other purpose. This is not surprising, given that when the statute was enacted in 2006, most wireless telephones were just that—a telephone—rather than an electronic device with multiple functions.


In other words, laws enacted against mobile phone use in 2006 are hopelessly out of date for dealing with mobile phone use in 2012, much less in 2014. A phone today is wildly different from what a phone was back then. It isn’t even a phone, really. It’s a computer. That’s what Peter Spriggs was doing in his car. He was checking his computer.

As far as I can tell, however, there’s still no law in California that applies to checking a map. If legislators want to ban that, they’d better explain why it’s OK to hold a paper map but not an electronic one. And they’d better get busy before technology leaves them in the dust again.