A California court says the old ban on mobile phones while driving also applies to the newer things phones can do, including helping someone navigate to their destination using a maps / turn-by-turn directions app.

Time for a legal overhaul for the 21st century.

But, even more fundamentally than that, I mention it because this is a great example of how reactive lawmaking leads to bad outcomes. Look at this graphic for a perfect example. The things on the right are perfectly legal; the thing on the left will get you a fine.


Mobile phones got invented and became popular, and then there was an upswing in crashes involving distracted driving, and lawmakers responded to it with these laws about mobile phones. But if we make laws based on reacting to outcomes, we end up with this giant patchwork quilt of overlapping laws rather than a simple, principle-based guide that makes sense.

There are lots of ways people can be distracted while driving. What would we find if we were to analyze the number of accidents involving parents distracted by young children in the back seats? Or eating? (Drive-throughs are still legal, right?) Or dropping something and feeling for it, trying to pick it up? Or using the plethora of perfectly legal built-in dashboard electronics in modern cars; should we ban all of that too?

We were told years ago that mobile phones could be singled out for laws aimed at their use while driving because, when someone is having a conversation on a phone, they are inherently distracted. (Voice calls and texting both qualify.) But it appears the goalposts have been moved again: even following turn-by-turn directions are illegal if they’re in your hand. Yet turn-by-turn directions are perfectly legal if they’re in the dashboard!

It doesn’t matter how people are being distracted while driving, only that they are. Principled lawmaking would create penalties for people who are distracted while driving, no matter the source of distraction. Drivers can already be cited in most jurisdictions for driving erratically, or otherwise disobeying the rules of the road. The patchwork of laws with all their inevitable irrelevancies, loopholes, inconsistencies, arbitrariness and capriciousness don’t make sense. The answer here is to create simple principles for drivers to abide by which generally discourage distractions and encourage responsible use of technology.