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Summary:

A court said drivers can look at maps on your phone — but not talk or text. This will only lead to more confusion at a time when we need new rules for computers, including Google Glass, in cars.

drivesafe for google glass

The law has spoken: you can’t use your cell phone when driving unless it’s hands-free, except in cases where you want to look at your smartphone map. And drivers can’t use Google Glass — but will not be fined unless a cop can prove the eyewear is turned on. Got all that?

Welcome to the current situation in California where drivers’ use of new technology is crashing into older state driving laws, and leading to a pile-up of legal confusion. In the 49 other states, the laws are all different and equally unclear.

The latest incident, in case you missed it, is a California appeals court decision that reversed a $165 fine levied against a man who looked at the map on his iPhone while he was stuck in traffic. According to the man, the law shouldn’t apply since he wasn’t using the phone to communicate with anyone, and the court agreed:

Spriggs contends he did not violate the statute because he was not talking on  the telephone. We agree. [...] we conclude that the statute means what it says – it prohibits a driver only from holding a wireless telephone while conversing on it.

The result is fair: people have always checked maps while driving, so why should it be different when the map is on a phone? But for police officers, this would seem to make related laws — including California’s ban on texting while driving — impossible to enforce.

The situation is similar to the rules for Google Glass. A California court said a Glass-wearing San Diego woman did not violate a law banning drivers from watching external monitor — the reason was that  cop could not show the eyewear was turned on. Once again, a fair result, but one that makes it practically impossible for police to enforce the law.

A possible solution: design devices for drivers?

Lawmakers face a tall task in crafting rules for car computers that are both fair and enforceable. The situation is even more complicated by the fact that technologies like Google Glass and smartphones can help drivers, not just distract them.

My colleague Kevin Tofel, who has driven with Google Glass in Pennsylvania, has pointed out that the eyewear can help drivers because they can get information in the same way as looking at an in-car HUD, or heads-up display, and that it could save lives by waking up sleepy drivers. This is why it may not be wise to ban Glass altogether — just as we don’t ban drivers from making 911 calls.

The solution to finding a balance may ultimately come from the devices themselves, rather than laws regulating driver behavior. For example, the Mercedes-Benz Splitview system provides two screens, allowing a passenger to watch TV while showing only navigational information to the driver. (Unfortunately, the system runs afoul of state laws against monitors in cars).

In the future, device makers may work with automakers to find ways to detect that a person using a technology is a driver, and only show them appropriate information.  In the meantime, though, state laws will continue to be a source of confusions for drivers, cops and courts.

Here’s the California court decision via the Mercury News

Document: California appeals court says reading cellphone maps while driving is legal


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  1. bought a car with in-dash GPS/entertainment and I totally regret it. Sure, I can voice-control my handset via bluetooth, but how do I key in extension numbers? I wish it had a numeric keypad instead of the audio source and volume control on the steering wheel.
    To add insult to injury, the touchscreen’s map stop responding and shows a warning that hides the map itself once the car is running, even if it is being operated by the passenger (and there is a sensor for passenger presence in the car). Worse: radio station selection is still accessible on that touchscreen, which seems inconsistent to me, and the buttons are tiny despite the decent sized screen. Has any of those people writing the laws and designing these systems ever taken a usability course? or just observed the driver struggling with these distractions?

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