Smartphone Maps Illegal While Driving but Paper Maps are Okay in California

Rebecca Maxwell


In recent years, some states have been putting harsher laws in place to curb drivers talking on their cellphones or text messaging while operating their vehicles. Most of us agree that those practices are dangerous but what about using your smartphone for a map? A recent court case in California has raised questions about how far these laws about using smartphones have gone. A California man was fined and cited for distracted driving in 2012 for pulling out his iPhone while stuck in traffic because he wanted to use Google Maps to find a better route to take. This case has resulted in a fair amount of controversy about what constitutes distracted driving but also raises questions about the differences between using a map on a smartphone as opposed to using a paper map or a GPS navigation device in a vehicle.

In January of 2012, Steven Spriggs was driving near Fresno, California when he got caught in a traffic jam. Spriggs then did what many of us would do; he pulled out his iPhone to access its maps in order to find a way around the construction. Right then, a motorcycle police officer from the California Highway Patrol ordered Spriggs to pull over because he was using his phone. Spriggs even showed the officer that he was looking at map and not texting. In the end, however, the officer still cited Spriggs with distracted driving, and he was ordered to pay a $160 fine plus court costs.

The story does not end there. Spriggs, a law school graduate, appealed his case to both the court commissioner and an appellate panel made up of three judges from the Superior Court in Fresno County. Both the court commissioner and the appellate panel ruled against Spriggs, arguing that holding his iPhone to look up a map violated a state law in California that bans talking or texting on mobile devices unless its handsfree. Spriggs argued that this citation was an unfair expansion of this law. He even took a paper map to court in his defense to show that using paper maps while driving is considered legal. Currently, no state in the U.S. has banned the use of paper maps or the practice of using GPS units that are attached to the dashboard of vehicles.

Before the appellate panel, Spriggs argued that iPhones have many other functions that are not as dangerous as texting or talking on a phone. The panel refused Sprigg’s arguments and he ultimately lost his appeals. Judge Ken Hamlin of Fresco County reiterated the gist of law, explaining that any use of a cellphone no matter if it is talking, texting, playing games, or looking up maps, can be considered as distracted driving. The ruling brings up a whole host of questions about what constitutes distracted driving when it comes to smartphones. Do state legislatures have a particular prejudice against the use of smartphones by drivers while ignoring other equally distracting practices at the same time?

Distracted driving as defined by the law could be expanded include several other things we do in the car. Changing a CD, talking with passengers, fiddling with the radio, daydreaming, or eating and drinking could fall under the category of distracted driving. Furthermore, playing with a GPS unit in the car, trying to use a paper map, and looking at printed driving directions could also be counted as distracted driving because it takes our eyes and minds off the road. Yet, it is perfectly legal to use paper maps or a GPS unit attached to a vehicle while others like Steven Spriggs are being ticketed for any use of their smartphone’s mapping features.

The majority of us agree that distracted driving leads to more traffic accidents and injuries. Spriggs himself has personal experience. His son was injured in 2010 after being hit by a driver talking on a cellphone. Typing an address into a smartphone mapping program could be considered texting. Currently, thirty-nine states plus the District of Columbia ban sending a text message while driving, while ten states ban talking on a cellphone completely. These ten states include Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and West Virginia.

Several states throughout the country ban the use of phones while driving unless it is used with hands free devices. In these states, if the driver is seen holding a smartphone in his or her hands, he or she could technically be cited for distracted driving that includes using the device for maps. However, the same laws do not apply in the case of GPS units attached to the dashboard of a vehicle. Drivers also use their hands to type an address into a GPS, yet that is not considered texting or distracted driving. The other problem with banning the use of using smartphone maps is the legality of using paper maps or printed directions. Paper maps can be just as distracting as the driver tries to unfold the map, fold it again, turn to the right page in an atlas, or try to read and follow printed directions. The logic behind states expanding distracted driving laws to include using maps on a smartphone does not make sense in light of the fact that using paper maps and GPS units is still legal.

The case of Steven Spriggs in California raises a large number of questions about what constitutes distracted driving and how state laws treat using a smartphone for maps different from using paper maps and GPS units attached to vehicle’s dashboard. Some states like California consider using a smartphone for anything, including mapping, to be a distraction for drivers. The ruling in the California case seems to prove that there is a legal distinction between maps on hand held devices and paper maps. Of course, the case does not make sense to a lot of people, including Steven Spriggs, and it has generated controversy about many issues related to distracted driving including using smartphones for maps versus paper maps while driving.

Checking a paper map or fiddling with an in car navigation device is okay, but holding a smartphone in order to access a navigation app is illegal in California.


“Court: California Motorist Can’t Use Hand-Held Map.”

Should We Ban Handheld Smartphone Maps While Driving? California Thinks So.”

“Cell Phone and Texting Laws.”

“California Court Rules It Illegal to Check Maps on Your Phone While Driving.”



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About the author
Rebecca Maxwell
Rebecca Maxwell is a freelance writer who loves to write about a variety of subjects. She holds a B.A. in History from Boise State University. Rebecca has also been a contributing writer on

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1 thought on “Smartphone Maps Illegal While Driving but Paper Maps are Okay in California”

  1. Yet another fear of technology case. As you state the law is fine with an analog device but makes illegal the use of the digital version, regardless of the level of distraction imposed by either device. There are many other similar examples, for instance the legal right to privacy when sending snail mail versus the eroding (some might argue complete erosion) of privacy when sending email. In general there is a fear of technology – likely because those creating the law and enforcing the law simply don’t understand technology. There is hope as the “digital native” youth age into a position where they can influence change more effectively and the old guys who think the internet is a series of tubes phase out.

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