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.


Follow the Road Warrior on Twitter at @PDRoadWarrior.



Be Sociable, Share!



  1. B G McD

    WOW, another law that people can break……I see cops driving all the time on the phone……….what a waste of time to make it a law

    April 10th, 2013 8:53 am

  2. Patrick

    What about if I put my iPhone in airplane mode. Then it is technically not a cell phone any more, but more like an iTouch.
    Also how does this apply to all the cars that have touch screen interfaces for everything from the radio to the climate controls?

    April 10th, 2013 9:53 am

  3. jody hampton

    First Offense: $1000.00
    Second Offense: Liscense suspension
    Third Offense: penis deportation

    April 10th, 2013 11:00 am

  4. Daniel

    Interesting decision since the California Vehicle Code, section 23123.5(a) says, “A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using an electronic wireless communications device to write, send, or read a text-based communication, unless the electronic wireless communications device is specifically designed and configured to allow voiceoperated and hands-free operation to dictate, send, or listen to a text-based communication, and it is used in that manner while driving.”

    But sub-section “c” states, “For purposes of this section, 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 or if a person otherwise activates or deactivates a feature or function on an electronic wireless communications device.”

    So it seems to contradict the law that says I can dial the phone but need to use it hands-free while talking.

    To B G McD.

    Sub-section “e” may help you understand the law a little better. It says, “This section does not apply to an emergency services professional using an electronic wireless communications device while operating an authorized emergency vehicle, as defined in Section 165, in the course and scope of his or her duties.”

    April 10th, 2013 11:31 am

  5. RN

    It’s about time. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been almost hit in a crosswalk by drivers who are looking down, texting or holding a cell phone, talking. Everyday i see people going through red lights, stop signs, running up on curbs, while talking on their phones. For all you people who resent being regulated, you are putting lives at stake every time you drive and hold a phone to talk or text. It never should have been allowed in the first place- a no brainer. How many injuries and deaths will it take?

    April 10th, 2013 11:37 am

  6. Lisa

    I get that distracted driving is a hazard, but then what about eating food? That requires the use of one hand. Changing stations on the radio or finding a CD to play? – not all of us have high tech cars. Why is the law only to cellphones?

    Expanding the law from hands free cellphone conversations (the prolonged use of one hand to your ear is reasonable) to any related use of a cell phone is excessive and not reasonable, especially not going further and expanding to all GPS use, ipod use etc.

    I truly also believe the experienced drivers know better than to text and drive.

    April 10th, 2013 11:59 am

  7. Kathy

    @ Lisa, any distracted driving is illegal but you ask why the focus on phones and not food or changing radio stations? The answer is that people don’t hold a burger or fries for hours, like they do w/ phones on long drives, and changing the radio station takes a second or less, not hours on end. But yes, you take a risk when you’re shoving food in, it’s just not as many people doing that at any one time, for as long a time.

    People need to grow up and realize that when they’re driving, they risk the safety of themselves, their passengers and anyone else out on the road if they don’t give ALL their attention to driving. And for what, someone else should die or be maimed because you have to use your dang phone to chatter away?

    As for experienced drivers not texting, you are quite naive to say that, you only have to look at the other drivers on the road or read any survey. It happens. Every day.

    We need to have a societal change to start considering distracted driving the same as we do drunk driving.

    April 10th, 2013 12:12 pm

  8. Justin

    I use my smart phone as a GPS, but it has a windshield mount, is this legal, as long as I don’t touch it?

    April 10th, 2013 12:13 pm

  9. Sam

    So using a non-phone GPS or music player is acceptable but those functions contained within a phone are off-limits?

    April 10th, 2013 12:15 pm

  10. John H

    I read the opinion because I thought they would have a difficult time addressing the existence of Vehicle Code 23123.5 (which disallows texting while driving). The Court did address that and differentiated the two statutes by saying that no matter what you use a “cell phone” for, if you have to physically interact with it then you are violating Vehicle Code 23123. The Court then states VC 23123.5 applies to more that just cell phones, but any type of digital device.

    The problem with the Court’s reasoning is that the next logical step is that if you’re using something for GPS that is not a “cell phone,” such as an iPad, then you’re not violating their interpretation of VC 23123, which makes for an odd result.

    April 10th, 2013 12:29 pm

  11. Dan Drummond Sr

    How about a device that clips to the dashboard. Is that legal? If so, just buy a case that can clip to the dashboard.

    April 10th, 2013 12:59 pm

  12. Dan Drummond Sr

    Jody – Nice one, but what if it’s detachable and can clip to the dashboard?

    April 10th, 2013 1:02 pm

  13. RF

    Justin had the same question that I do… What about a mounted cell phone? There are clip to the vent holders, windshield mounts, etc. Wouldn’t that be the same as any other touch control GPS?

    April 10th, 2013 1:22 pm

  14. js

    Note: this is a county appeal – not a Court of Appeals ruling that would apply state- wide. It is also wrong. The senator that wrote the bill said that it is “absolutely legal” to use the phone for other functions such as holding the phone and dialing it. I hope that Sonoma County applies the actual law, and not consider some central state county judge to set the law state wide!

    April 10th, 2013 1:23 pm

  15. Safedriver

    Require special gloves permanently attached to the steering wheel.
    Hands must be locked into gloves to start the car and drive it. Hands cannot be removed while vehicle is in motion.

    April 10th, 2013 2:05 pm

  16. RGL

    What a joke. It is a total money grab. There has been a law on the books for many years that would have covered phones. It is called distracted driving. Maybe I can touch my radio now also

    April 10th, 2013 2:36 pm

  17. Jason

    Hands not @ 10 & 2…. Prison Time

    April 10th, 2013 2:43 pm

  18. David Stubblebine

    Best advice is to stay tuned. This decision creates as many questions as it clears up.

    It is also important to note that this decision is only binding within Fresno County (although many Courts may choose to rely on its reasoning). If the Legislature passes the clean-up language they are rumored to be considering, that would supersede this decision; if they don’t, there will likely be more Court decisions that will further modify this interpretation.

    April 10th, 2013 4:15 pm

  19. jon n

    jody hampton’s entire comment was building up to one of the lamest jokes i’ve ever heard. keep trying though

    April 10th, 2013 6:35 pm

Submit Your Comments


Required, will not be published