Using a cell phone’s GPS function while driving is against the law, according to a court rule of the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal.

A three-magistrate panel upheld a finding that a driver had violated a state law banning text messaging by using his GPS. If the rule is upheld, Rhoda Island will become the only state in the U.S. to ban all kind of cellphone’s manipulation while driving. In contrast, Rhode Island still permits talking on a cellphone while driving, something many other states have banned.

“14 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving,” says the Governors Highway Safety Association. Image credit: iStock.

The case and the ruling

On July 1, 2015, Joseph Furtado, 30, was driving and operating his cellphone’s GPS. Trooper Michael O’Neill saw him on Route 95 North in Providence and proceeded to tail Furtado. He finally pulled Furtado over near Admiral Street and ticketed him for “text messaging” while driving.

Jason Dixon-Acosta, Furtado’s lawyer, stated his client was not texting, but using his GPS. Furtado was found guilty by Magistrate Joseph A. Abbate, who concluded that GPS distracted drivers in the same way text messaging did.

“As far as whether he was using his GPS or texting… I observed him repeatedly looking up and down from his cellphone to traffic. In my opinion, that constitutes using his phone,” stated O’Neill further on trial.

The interpretation of the text messaging law

The text messaging law states that “No person shall use a wireless handset or personal wireless communication device to compose, read, or send text messages while driving a motor vehicle on any public street or public highway within the state of Rhode Island.”

Rhode Island lawmakers have defined “text messaging” as “the process by which users send, read, or receive messages on a wireless handset, including, but not limited to, text messages, instant messages, electronic messages, or e-mails, in order to communicate with any person or device.”

At the same time, “reading” is defined as “to look at and understand the meaning of letters, words, or symbols.”

On Friday, Chief Magistrate William R. Guglietta, Magistrate Domenic A. DiSandro III, and Judge Edward C. Parker concluded that “reading” under the law not only meant “looking at letters,” but also viewing the images displayed in the GPS.

The interpretation comes from the sentence “including, but not limited to,” which for the tribunal means lawmakers intended to broaden the law so it could apply to more than just e-mails, instant messages or text messages.

Even more, the tribunal concluded the word “use” in the law applies not just to typing or listening, but even to viewing.

“Consequently, based on the plain language of the statute a reader may be looking at any visual display on the phone’s interface and be in violation of the statute. To hold otherwise would defeat the purpose of the statute: to prevent drivers from distractions caused by operation of a cell phone while driving. In sum, based on the legislative history of the statute and the definitions set forth by our legislature, we conclude that operating a cell phone for any purpose, including GPS, is prohibited,” ruled the tribunal.

Opinions on the court’s decision

Olin Thompson, president of the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has stated the court ruling is an overly broad interpretation of the state law. For him, the law was “clear” and was specifically created to prohibit emailing and texting, and it was distorted to include “looking at your phone to check traffic directions or select the next song, even one time.”

The majority of the country’s states allow GPS use, as long as the drivers place their phones in a cradle that is affixed or mounted in the car, to diminish distraction. Other states, such as Utah have exempted GPS altogether, said Tamra Johnson, a spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association.

For Captain Dennis Fleming of the Rhode Island State Police, it is a “great” ruling to prevent distracted driving and its consequences. Most locals, like Mike Harrington, believe the tribunal “overreached” and claimed drivers should be able to put their phones in their handheld to use GPS.

The Global Positioning System receiver

A GPS is a device capable of both receiving information from Global Positioning System satellites and then calculating its geographical location.

This is a global navigation satellite system, better known as GNSS, created by the U.S. Department of Defense. It currently has thirty satellites placed into orbit.

The device was developed for military use, but in the eighties, the U.S. government granted permission to use the system for civilian purposes. Data of GPS satellites are free and available to anywhere in the world, but the device must be rented or bought.

Source: WPRI