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Update: Read Paul Payne’s follow-up story about the court ruling here.

If you’re using your cell phone to get directions or play music while you’re driving, you’re breaking the law. That’s the ruling released Monday by a Fresno County appeals court.

After considering People v. Spriggs, the three-judge Superior Court panel ruled that California’s 2008 law banning use of cell phones while driving applies to anything that requires drivers to use their hands. The court’s ruling states:

“Our review of the statute’s plain language leads us to conclude that the primary evil sought to be avoided is the distraction the driver faces when using his or her hands to operate the phone. That distraction would be present whether the wireless telephone was being used as a telephone, a GPS navigator, a clock or a device for sending and receiving text messages and emails.”

“There was considerable disagreement locally and statewide on how the law applied to the use of a smart phone for  purposes other than as a  traditional ‘cellphone,’” explains Commissioner Lawrence Ornell, a Sonoma County judge who oversees traffic court. “This case answered  it. So having your standalone GPS (Garmin, TomTom) in your hand is legal;  same function on your cellphone illegal. Playing music with your iPod is legal it would seem, iPhone illegal.

“I have many people come to court to say they were using the GPS or music function.”

Ornell also said he is hearing about support for a law that would clear up the discrepancy, prohibiting drivers from holding any electronic device.

Other highlights from the decision:

– “There are two aspects of cellphone use while driving that result in significant distraction and collisions. The first is the physical distraction a motorist encounters when either picking up the phone, punching the number keypad, holding the phone up to his or her ear to converse, or pushing a button to end a call. It is this type of distraction that is addressed by this bill. The other, potentially more significant, is the mental distraction which results from the ongoing conversation carried on between the motorist and the person on the other end of the line.”

– “The statute instead focuses on the distraction a driver faces when using his or her hands to operate the phone, specifically including ‘the physical distraction a motorist encounters when either picking up the phone, punching the number keypad, holding the phone up to his or her ear to converse, or pushing a button to end a call.’ That distraction would be present whether the phone is used for carrying on a conversation or for some other purpose.”

– “The bill was designed to prohibit the ‘hands-on’ use of the phone while driving, without limitation.”

– “It may be argued that the Legislature acted arbitrarily when it outlawed all ‘hands-on’ use of a wireless telephone while driving, even though the legal use of one’s hands to operate myriad other devices poses just as great a risk to the safety of other motorists. It may also be argued that prohibiting driving while using ‘electronic wireless communications devices’ for texting and emailing, while acknowledging and failing to prohibit perhaps even more distracting uses of the same devices, is equally illogical and arbitrary. Both arguments should be addressed to the Legislature in support of additional legislation.”

Read the full ruling at courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/JAD13-02.PDF.

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