NHTSA Goes After the Phones in Drivers' Pockets

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 16, 2014

Imagine you’re a state cop, and you pull up alongside a guy holding his cellphone. Is he talking on that thing, using an app for directions, or just holding it? For the purposes of a $165 ticket, does it matter exactly what that phone is up to?

We’re talking about what is now a very grey area in the law, one I’ve often wondered about (especially when it comes to using Google Maps on my iPhone). Sure, I’m holding the phone, but instead of looking at it I’m following the voice commands to get where I’m going. Is that legal or not?  

Consider the case of Steven Spriggs, who got a $165 ticket from the California Highway Patrol for using a navigation app on his cellphone. Okay, so it’s illegal to navigate and drive, then? No, actually, because Spriggs challenged the ticket and the Fifth District Court of Appeal agreed with him.

“Spriggs contends he did not violate the statute because he was not talking on the telephone,” the court said. “We agree. We conclude the statute means what it says—it prohibits a driver only from holding a wireless telephone while conversing on it.” Of course, that’s just a local ruling, not a binding federal decision.

What if Spriggs had been looking at a paper map instead of his phone? That’s just as distracting, if not more so, but there’s no law against it.

But now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is wading into the fray, asking Congress for the right to regulate cellphone apps, including navigation. Remember, most in-car navigation systems insist that you be stationary when inputting an address. That can be frustrating when you’re the passenger and could use navigation in perfect safety. Some apps let passengers “certify” they’re not the driver, but that’s about as effective as asking potential porn buyers if they’re 18 years old.
Note that few automakers (Tesla being an exception) allow on-road web surfing. (Incidentally, if you expect Tesla owners to be liberal, you might be surprised that 10 percent of all Model S pageviews are to the Drudge Report.)

Positions on all this depend on whose ox is gored. Automakers aren’t opposed to federal regulation—for cellphones—but they think that in-car devices are safer (because they're bigger and easier to use) and shouldn’t be overly restricted. Tech companies—wanting to maximize the use of the already ubiquitous smart phone—are probably going to lobby against the rules heavily. According to Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Auto Alliance (representing 12 carmakers): "Portable phones and navigation devices are everywhere, and consumers are using these devices in their vehicles.  We need all the stakeholders engaged and working together to find a way to keep our society connected as safely as possible."

In 2010, 17 percent of all 899,000 police-reported crashes involved distracted driving. In 26,000 crashes, the cause was a device or a car control the driver was fiddling with. In voluntary guidelines issued by NHTSA last year, the agency defined what constitutes “visual,” “manual” and “cognitive” distraction—tasks that take your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel, and leave your attention elsewhere.

Here’s a NHTSA rule of thumb:

The distraction induced by any secondary task performed while driving should not exceed that associated with a baseline reference task (manual radio tuning).

That’s a classic example of the industry and regulators working at cross-purposes. Despite howls of protest from car writers (including me!), infotainment people insist on offering radios with touch tuning replacing the good-old distraction-fighting knob. As every driver in the world knows, you don’t have to look away from the road to use a tuning knob.

With all this said, it’s still going to be hard to enforce new cellphone rules. The new voluntary rules specify that any navigation system interaction should not last more than 12 seconds, but we’ve all struggled with non-intuitive GPS systems for far longer than that.
NHTSA will ultimately have more input in the design of new car-based apps, rather than their actual use in the vehicle. And that’s a good thing. Some cellphone-based programs can and should be sent back to be made safer. Tech Crunch points out:

We consider it a given that the mechanical equipment in our cars is subject to regulatory approval, including built-in navigation systems that could theoretically lead us over a cliff, and yet Apple is the only barrier to entry for whether an app is suitable to tell you where to go in your car.

The regs will be attached to the big transportation bill, which is expected to pass before the end of the year. But maybe it won’t go anywhere, because this is a do-nothing Congress gearing up for an election year.

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