Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Will cops use common sense on drivers and cell phones?

By Ruben Navarrette
updated 12:29 AM EST, Sat March 8, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • California court sided with a driver who looked at a map on phone while in his car
  • Ruben Navarrette: The dangers of texting and driving are well-known
  • He says cops should use common sense, not ban all use of phones in cars
  • Navarrette: Smartphones provide a variety of tools that could be helpful

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

San Diego (CNN) -- The most important tool that law enforcement officers have at their disposal is common sense. This is especially true with that segment of the force that spends the most time interacting with the public: traffic cops and highway patrol officers who enforce the vehicle code.

I'm glad the San Diego police officer who pulled me over a couple of years ago had common sense. He had spotted me holding onto my smartphone and suspected that I was violating California's "hands free" law. The law, which took effect in 2008, prohibits drivers from talking on a cell phone while driving.

By the time the officer approached the driver's side window, he had his ticket book out. After we exchanged pleasantries, he told me that he had pulled me over for talking on the phone while driving.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

That's true, I said. I was talking on the phone. Then, I turned my head, so he could see the Bluetooth headset lodged in my right ear. I was using a hands-free device, just as the law requires. But, I explained, I had to lay my hands on the phone, if only for a second, to push the button that makes a call.

"That makes sense," the officer said with a smile as he closed his ticket book. "Have a nice day."

There is no argument that distracted driving can be just as dangerous as drunken driving, and so states have the right to pass laws that ban the practice of talking on the phone while driving. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have such laws on the books. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia also ban texting while driving.

Curbing distracted driving
Almost 50% of adults text while driving

However, these laws raise questions.

For instance, if the idea is to stop drivers from being distracted, then why stop at banning handheld cell phones? We can hold the steering wheel with one hand while using the other to drink a cup of coffee or eat a hamburger, but we can't use it to hold a phone? We can fiddle with the radio or -- in a minivan, the DVD player -- but we can't access Pandora or satellite radio on our phone?

Besides, as illustrated by a recent appeals court decision in Central California that could reverberate around the country, passing a law is the easy part. It is implementing it on the street that can get tricky for police -- especially in the age of the smartphone that doesn't just let you make a call but also provides a variety of functions that, far from being harmful to motorists, might prove helpful.

For instance, you can access a map with your phone. That's what Steven Spriggs of Fresno, California, was trying to do a few years ago when an officer with the California Highway Patrol pulled him over. Spriggs says that he was stuck in heavy traffic because of road construction, and that he was using the map function on his phone to look for an alternate route.

Spriggs tried to explain to the officer that he wasn't talking on the phone, and so -- given his understanding of the state's hands-free law -- he had not committed any infraction. The officer didn't buy it and proceeded to write him a $165 ticket. Spriggs thought that was unfair, and so he fought the ticket in court -- all the way, in fact, to the 5th District Court of Appeals, which recently ruled in his favor.

The appeals court threw out the ticket, declaring that the California State Legislature had only intended to prevent talking on the phone while driving. Nothing more.

"Spriggs contends he did not violate the statute because he was not talking on the telephone. We agree," the court wrote. "We conclude the statute means what it says -- it prohibits a driver only from holding a wireless telephone while conversing on it."

This may be that we have not heard the last of this case. The state could appeal, and the California Supreme Court could agree to hear the case. The legislature could decide to amend the law to broaden it out and perhaps close some of the loopholes.

For now though, this is a major victory -- not just for one California motorist but for common sense. The officer who stopped Spriggs that day on the roadway was short on it.

He could have saved us all time and trouble by not forcing the issue and making room for the possibility that there was nuance in how the law should be applied. Yet, the good news is that the appeals court had enough to keep law enforcement from overreaching.

The framers of the Constitution could never have imagined automobiles or cell phones. Yet, because of how they felt about the courts reining in the power of the state, you can bet that they would be pleased at how this story turned out.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT