I returned a rental car Thursday night in a city that I don’t know very well. Before I started the car’s engine, I checked a map on my iPhone to see how to get to the rental agency and then fired up some turn-by-turn, voice-enabled directions. It was simple, really.
But some bozos (I’d use a stronger word if my editor would let me) are still driving along while trying to read maps on small smartphone screens. I might not care too much if these people were only a danger to themselves, but because they could get me and other innocents killed it pushes my outrage button. There’s no shortage of studies that show distracted driving is extremely dangerous.
You’ve heard all of this before. But a recent ruling by a panel of judges in Calif. says that although the state’s law forbids driving while talking on a cell phone without a hands free setup, or texting, using navigation apps while your car is moving is perfectly legal.
The court, whose job it is to apply the law as written, is probably correct, as The Los Angeles Times points out. And that raises a number of interesting points.
The obvious conclusion is that the law should be clarified. But it’s worth noting that today’s technology evolves very quickly, while our political and judicial institutions change at a much slower pace.
When that Calif. law was passed in 2009, the iPhone was just two years old. Smartphones were not the ubiquitous accessories they are today, and the state Legislature didn’t foresee the use of apps. Today’s wiretapping laws similarly go back decades, but don’t cover many incidents of surveillance and eavesdropping made possible by new technology – and I’m not referring to the arguably illegal activities of the NSA.
In the Calif. case mentioned above, the driver’s car may not actually have been moving, the Associated Press reports, although that wasn’t a factor in the ruling. It does speak to the inflexible judgment of the officer who ticketed the guy. If the car wasn’t moving, he wasn’t endangering anyone. The same would be true if the driver called someone to say he was stuck in traffic. In that case, I’d say no harm, no foul.
It’s not just laws that lag behind technology; our manners and the unwritten codes that allow us to get along with each other do too.
If I was standing on a corner or sitting in a café pointing a camera, everyone would assume I was going to take a picture, like it or not. The law is pretty clear: You simply don’t have a reasonable “expectation of privacy” when you’re in public. But that doesn’t mean taking pictures of people without their permission is okay. In fact, it’s pretty darn rude.
But what about the person wearing Google Glass? The idea of someone taking random, surreptitious photos is creepy, but not everyone wearing Google Glass is doing that. If someone is wearing the device in a bar, should he or she have to assure everyone around them that he’s not taking their picture?
Of course, having my picture taken without my permission isn’t likely to kill me. But someone driving while staring at a smartphone just might. Fixing the disconnect between tech and the legal system is challenging, but for starters the people who write and enforce our laws would do well to spend some time learning about technology.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.