Map Apps A Go: Judge Rules It Is Legal to Look at Apps While Driving

It happens all the time. You’re out driving when suddenly you realize that you’re driving down a street you don’t recognized. Confused, you grab for your smartphone and pull open a map app in order to establish your position and get yourself back on track.

Except, up until just a few weeks ago, this act of grabbing for your phone could have garnered you a hefty ticket. The rules surrounding cell phone use and distracted driving can be difficult to establish in some cases, especially in the area of apps. Back in January of 2012, Steven Spriggs was issued a ticket by the California Highway Patrol for using his iPhone 4 while he was gridlocked in traffic. Spriggs fought the $165 ticket on the grounds that he wasn’t doing anything illegal; he wasn’t making a call, sending a text of checking his email. Rather, he was using a mapping app in order to find an alternative route around the roadwork that had him stuck. Since he wasn’t moving and wasn’t using the phone for restricted activities, Spriggs felt that he shouldn’t have been penalized. Little did he know that the outcome of his challenge would go on to impact California car rental drivers and residents across the state.

Following the Case

Even though Spriggs lost his battles in both traffic court and the Fresno County Superior Court, Spriggs was able to successfully appeal the charge in the district appeals court. The appellate reversed the lower court’s decision, saying the law the California Highway Patrol officer used to cite Spriggs applied only to actions that involved “listening and talking” on a cellphone and no other uses.

A victory for Spriggs, the ruling opens the door for reform to a number of the state’s laws. Many critics have argued that laws claiming to protect against distracted driving are too narrow to be properly applied to the rapidly changing world of mobile phones. While some states now have stricter “no touch” laws, which makes the simply act of holding a cellphone when behind the wheel of a car illegal, California car rental travelers currently aren’t held to the same standard. Drivers in the Golden State are only required to abide by the narrowly-worded “no talk, no text” rule.

A Closer Look at the Law

According to, the official US Government website for distracted driving, California car rental drivers must adhere to the following rules:

  • Handheld ban for all drivers (Primary law)
  • Ban on all cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) for bus drivers (Primary law)
  • Ban on all cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) for novice drivers (Secondary law)
  • Ban on texting for all drivers (Primary law)

But what does that actually mean? In California, among other states, spotting a driver looking at or touching the screen of a cellphone isn’t enough to issue a ticket. A law enforcement officer must have visual confirmation that the driver is exchanging a digital message using the device. What’s more, this has to be established all while driving beside the offender in a marked patrol car. In fact, the issuing officer must be able to confidently testify in court that they witnessed the act in question, which isn’t always the easiest of things to do.

Specifically, California’s anti-texting law, which went into effect back in 2009, is intended to prohibit California car rental drivers from writing, sending or reading “text-based communications” on any “electronic wireless communication device”. This effectively makes it illegal to text, compose an email, or share any content on social networks like Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. However, the waters are less clear when to comes to looking up a contact in your phone, selecting a song from iTunes, or researching directions via a map application. Since you’re not actually communicating any information, technically you’re not in violation of the law. Are you any less distracted? Well, that’s questionable.

The Dangers of Distracted Driving

According to, there are more than 660,000 American drivers using a device behind the wheel of a car during any given hour of daylight. What’s more, the National Highway Safety Administration found that back in 2011, 10 percent of all fatal crashes were caused by driver distraction. California car rental drivers who engage in activities like talking on the phone while driver quite literally increase their changes of crashing by four times.

When it comes to using your phone behind the wheel of your California Car Rental, do yourself and other drivers a favor and resist the urge. Whether you’re looking for directions or tempted to answer that text, consider what the potential repercussions of your actions could be. The best way to drive your California car rental will always be with both hands on the wheel and your cellphone out of reach.