California Bans All Handheld Cell Phone Use While Driving

Categories: Vehicle Accidents

As of January 1, 2017, it is officially a crime to hold a cell phone for any reason while driving in California.

Handheld talking or texting has long been illegal, but the prior law failed to address holding a phone for other reasons, like browsing a playlist or using a navigation app. That loophole is now closed. With the safety of so many motorists at stake, it is worth examining why the new law was necessary, how it will work in practice, and what it means for victims of distracted driving accidents.

The Problem of Cell Phones Behind the Wheel

The California Highway Patrol reports that approximately 19,000 people in Orange County are injured in vehicle collisions each year. Based on population figures, this puts the odds of getting hurt in a collision at about 1 in 163. Keep in mind that this calculation is just for one year. The longer you reside here, the more likely it becomes that you will eventually get hurt in a crash.

We also know that cell phone use is involved in just over 25 percent of all traffic accidents, according to data released by the National Safety Council. The agency found that other types of distracted driving – like applying makeup or reaching for an object on the floorboard – may be more dangerous, but they occur less often. What this all means is that injury accidents are common in our community and cell phone use is often to blame.

Closing the Loophole

Lawmakers in Sacramento were among the first in the country to take aim at the problem of cell phone use while driving. As part of the California Wireless Telephone Automobile Safety Act of 2006, the legislature made it illegal to use a cell phone…

“…unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.”

Eight years later, in People v. Spriggs, the California Court of Appeal was presented with a case that asked whether the 2006 law applied to holding a phone for the purpose of using a navigation app while driving. The court ruled that it did not:

“[W]e conclude that the statute means what it says – it prohibits a driver only from holding a wireless telephone while conversing on it.”

The court’s ruling left law enforcement in a quandary. They could not cite drivers for holding phones to use apps, even though such behavior is just as dangerous as talking or texting. Worse still, drivers pulled over while holding a phone to talk or text could lie to police and say they were just using a navigation app.

Assembly Bill 1785 closed the navigation app loophole when it went into effect this year. The new law outlaws all handheld use. It allows drivers only a single tap or swipe of the finger on a smartphone that is mounted on the dashboard or in the lower corner of the windshield.

Injury Victims May Benefit from the New Law

What happens when a driver ignores the new law and causes an accident while holding a cell phone? The driver will be guilty of a criminal infraction, to be sure; but where does this leave a victim in need of compensation? The answer involves a legal concept known as “duty of care.”

In a personal injury case, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant violated a duty to act reasonably under the circumstances. Determining what is reasonable is often a subject of debate. For example, prior to 2017, a negligent driver may have argued that holding a phone in order to navigate is reasonable. The absence of a law prohibiting that conduct would have lent some support to the argument. Not anymore. Because violating the law is unreasonable per se in most cases, victims of drivers who violate California’s new cell phone law have one less obstacle standing in the way of justice.