Virtually everyone agrees that distracted driving is a dangerous problem that needs to be deterred. There has been much less consensus, however, on the best way to accomplish that goal. Meanwhile, the proliferation of mobile apps and devices for drivers continues to complicate the issue.
Take Michigan, for example. In 2010, it was among the vanguard of states cracking down on what was then understood to be a “texting while driving” problem. At that time, Michigan adopted MCL §257.602b [http://legislature.mi.gov/doc.aspx?mcl-257-602b], which provides that:
“a person shall not read, manually type, or send a text message on a wireless 2-way communication device that is located in the person's hand or in the person's lap, including a wireless telephone used in cellular telephone service or personal communication service, while operating a motor vehicle that is moving on a highway or street in this state.”
Additional restrictions apply to commercial drivers with exceptions made for GPS devices and emergency situations.
However, the way in which we use mobile phones—including in the car—has changed radically since then. As written, the statute says nothing about Snapping photos while driving (a phenomenon that caused at least one high-speed accident [https://www.cbsnews.com/news/snapchat-speed-filter-accident-lawsuit-claim-dismissed/
] in Georgia), nor any other photography or social media apps, for that matter. Taken at face value, it doesn’t even address what happens when a car is stopped at a red light, or moving through a parking lot or driveway.
Michigan Democrats have made recent efforts to update the law. In February 2019, Representative Mari Manoogian, calling the current statute “antiquated,” introduced HB 4181 [http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/2019-2020/billintroduced/House/pdf/2019-HIB-4181.pdf]
, which would impose a blanket ban on driving while operating any “mobile electronic device”—a term expanded broadly enough to even include head-worn smartglasses. (It was not long after Michigan’s current statute went into effect that the first traffic ticket for driving while wearing Google Glass was issued in California.) The bill would not apply, however, to the use of voice-activated or hands-free capabilities that are built into the vehicle itself—a provision that Rep. Manoogian acknowledged was inspired by her own use of Apple’s CarPlay. In her 2019 State of the State Address, Governor Whitmer likewise called for a “hands-free driving law” that takes current and future technologies into account. Since then, however, Manoogian’s bill has made no progress in the Legislature.
Meanwhile, tech companies have continued to develop countless new solutions for drivers, including those that rely on mobile devices. In a patent application published on July 25, 2019, Apple described a method for using iPhones as a dash-mounted, augmented reality navigation tool. The app would analyze the road ahead and project directions and other mapping data in real time on a video feed of the road ahead. According to the patent application, such a display would make driving easier and safer by directing drivers to specific lanes “without having to decipher how general symbols correlate with the real world.”
Phone-based AR driving applications very similar to this one have been around for a decade, and so much popular attention has been focused on autonomous driving and connected cars that it’s curious to see Apple interested in this phone-based solution. The concept of encouraging drivers to view the road ahead of them through a phone screen also raises obvious safety issues of its own.
Michigan’s current law is unlikely to prohibit apps like this, because the phone is not being operated from the driver’s hand or lap, and isn’t being used to send “text messages.” Under Rep. Manoogian’s bill, it would appear to be unlawful if the app was run on the device itself—even though it’s a hands-free solution—because the user interface isn’t “permanently installed” in the vehicle. Of course, if the app is integrated into Apple CarPlay, the outcome would likely be different.
These examples drawn only from the laws of a single state are enough to demonstrate the complexity of regulating quickly-evolving mobile technology in vehicles. Multiply that complexity by 50, and you begin to understand the current state of regulations across the country.