Ask A Cop: What Can You Do with Phones in a Car?

Handheld GPS units are legal while driving; cell phones are not, even when used as a GPS.

It's legal to use your omTom One, car navigation system. Courtesy Wikimedia
It's legal to use your omTom One, car navigation system. Courtesy Wikimedia
Editor's note: This article was compiled by Patch Editor Brad Kava. He occasionally asks local law enforcement to answer readers' questions. Send your queries to brad.kava@patch.com. Thank you.

In the last column we established that it's illegal to text or talk on a handheld cellphone even when stopped at a red light. But a reader wants to know the permitted uses of a cell phone in the car.

Answers by CHP spokesman Bradley Sadek.

Question: If you can't talk at a red light, does this also apply to a car not started?  I mean, if I were to pull over to the side, turn off the engine, is that still illegal?

Answer: If you were to pull out of the roadway and park, (with the car running or not) it is not illegal to talk with your cellphone in a handheld manner. However, be mindful of where the traffic lanes are. If you are impeding traffic, you could be endangering yourself and the public and open yourself up to being cited. Also, this does not mean you can pull over on the side of the freeway, park and take a phone call. The only legal reason to stop on a freeway, outside of stop and go traffic, is for emergencies, IE: disabled vehicle, traffic collision, medical issue, etc.

Question: What if I were using the hand held cellphone as a GPS device, is that still illegal?

Answer: Using your cellphone as a handheld GPS device is illegal. It constitutes using your phone in a handheld manner. The whether or not the user is talking on the phone is not addressed in the law.

Question: How about holding a handheld GPS device, does this also count as illegal?

Answer: Currently this is legal. There are no regulations for "Handheld GPS" devices. Though it is probably a good idea that both hands are kept available for the most important part of driving - Driving. 

With all the distractions constantly vying  for our attention, it is very easy to become complacent, overconfident or "Zone-out" when we get behind the wheel. 

Sadly  it is very easy for drivers to get caught  in that dangerous area between "I can type in this address" (while driving at freeway speeds) and rear ending stopped traffic. 

When what's going on inside the vehicle becomes more important than what's happening outside, its time to reconsider priorities. So, while it is legal, be cautious. If your use of the GPS device looks like you are texting or using a handheld cellphone, you could potentially be pulled over. 

Also, if your use of a handheld GPS is such a significant distraction to your driving that it jeopardizes your safety or the safety of those around you, you could be issued a citation for a moving violation  or worse, be the cause of a collision.

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