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To curb distracted driving, banning smartphone maps is a slippery slope

California judge's says use of smartphone navigation apps behind the wheel is illegal.

By Douglas Newcomb Apr 22, 2013 5:08AM

Chevy Spark BringGo app.Driver distraction is nothing new. When the car radio was introduced in the 1930s, politicians and certain members of the public were concerned that distraction caused by the technology would wreak havoc on the highways. Before that, some even wanted to ban the rearview mirror for the same reason. combating

Of course, everything from eating behind the wheel to talking to passengers can cause drivers to not pay attention. But smartphones are now public enemy No. 1 since they’ve ushered in a Pandora’s box of new distractions: text messages, email, social media and Web browsing -- not to mention Pandora itself.

While navigation apps may not come to mind as belonging to this category, a California judge recently ruled that fiddling with a smartphone for navigation purposes behind the wheel is illegal, equivalent to talking on the phone while driving. The case involved Steven Spriggs, who was cited for “driving a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone.” Spriggs argued that he should not have received a ticket for using his phone while driving because he was using a map app.

While I agree that a driver shouldn’t be looking down at a tiny device while piloting a potentially lethal 2-ton slab of moving metal -- or even holding a phone while making a call -- court rulings and government regulations are not the most effective means of solving the issue. And automakers are already working on solutions.

Navigation apps have become popular with drivers because they can perform better than an automaker’s in-dash navigation system, and provide better value. While an in-dash system uses maps that quickly become outdated and can also be difficult and expensive to upgrade, many nav apps receive constantly refreshed maps.

And because of a smartphone’s cloud connectivity, nav apps can provide Internet-powered local search, compared with most in-dash systems’ static point-of-interest databases. In addition, many nav apps are inexpensive or even free, whereas in-dash nav systems can cost $1,000 or more.

As a result, automakers have been slowly adding features to their navigation offerings and also combining smartphone connectivity with in-dash systems. Toyota’s Entune infotainment system, for example, uses an app by the same name to bring local search into the car. The feature works with the car’s in-dash nav system to find services in a local area and leverages the connectivity of a smartphone.

Taking the concept a step further, with its MyLink system available for the Spark and Sonic, Chevy became the first car brand to allow using a smartphone navigation app as an alternative to an expensive in-dash system. That’s because MyLink is specifically designed to work with a smartphone. It doesn’t include a CD drive. Instead, MyLink relies either on music stored on a connected device or content streamed from a smartphone's Internet connection, such as from Pandora Internet radio.

It also uses a navigation app called BringGo that can be operated via MyLink's 7-inch touch screen. This way, drivers get the best of both worlds: up-to-date maps, connectivity and the low price of a nav app with the convenience of accessing features using the car’s larger display.

While it’s doubtful whether the same California judge would rule that using BringGo in a Spark or Sonic is illegal -- or a policeman would pull someone over for it -- since it would be the same as using an in-dash system, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration started down the same slippery slope. In announcing proposed guidelines for automakers last year to reduce driver distraction, NHTSA said it was considering banning moving maps in the dash.

Not only would this make most current in-dash navigation systems illegal -- including MyLink and others that are sure to follow and make it safer to use smartphone nav apps – but it also would compel people to use their smartphones even more than they do now.

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

Apr 22, 2013 9:51AM
I have a friend that simply cannot leave her I Phone alone when she is driving. She thinks that because she is voice texting that it is OK. I told her last week that I will no longer ride in her car with her unless she learns to put it down while driving. If she wants to risk her life, that's one thing but don't put mine in danger please.
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