Crowd-sourcing and decentralization have innovated many industries, including transportation. Rather than relying on a government agency to furnish accurate and localized data about road conditions, drivers can now create and share the data on their own. This is the concept behind Waze, a popular mobile app used by many Utahns each day.
What these Utah drivers likely do not realize is that using Waze—though it can help improve public safety—is actually illegal.
Utah law prohibits “manually enter[ing] data into a handheld wireless communication device” while driving. This means that it is against the law to let fellow drivers know of a roadside hazard, freeway accident, police officer’s location, or other data, thus rendering the entire app legally unusable in Utah; if drivers cannot share information then there will be none for other drivers to passively view.
The passage of Senate Bill 253 in 2014 raised awareness of driving while using a mobile device. In a controversial vote, that bill criminalized additional uses of a phone while driving, such as dialing a phone number or accessing the internet. However, even before that bill state law said that Utahns could not, while driving, “manually enter data into a handheld wireless communication device.”
Of course, Waze can legally be used by a passenger in a car, though it is unlikely this accounts for most usage.
We objected to 2014’s change in the law and support loosening the legal standard such that mobile devices are treated like other distractions in a vehicle. It remains perfectly legal to manually manipulate radio controls, eat a meal, apply makeup, discipline a child, have a conversation, daydream, scratch a hard-to-reach itch, or perform any number of other actions that may lead to reckless driving and potentially an accident.
An even better example is Tesla, the popular auto maker who is legally prohibited from selling their cars directly to Utahns. These vehicles feature a touchscreen device mounted to the vehicle’s console, providing the driver with a wide range of features to customize and configure. It’s basically a large, mounted iPad. And yet because it is not “handheld” or “wireless” it falls outside the scope of Utah law and therefore remains legal to use.
But because it’s like a large iPad, its use is similar to that of a mobile device and offers a number of distractions like its smaller counterparts. Why is one okay, but the other is not?
Simply banning a specific type of activity does not address the underlying problem of distracted driving. If anything, it can exacerbate it; whereas drivers would sometimes use a device within their field of vision of the road in front of them, the criminalization led many of them to use the phone in their lap, out of a police officer’s sight, but creating a substantial risk by having to move their gaze away from the road ahead.
A better approach would be to increase the legal penalty for distracted driving when an accident is actually caused. If it can be proven that the driver was intentionally distracted—using a mobile device or not—then the penalty could be increased to create a deterrent effect. Drivers who safely use a mobile device (or listen to the radio or discipline a child, etc.) would face no legal penalty. (This includes the many lawmakers who themselves violate this same law.)
Waze offers real-time metrics on driving, making a safer and more efficient experience. The data is generated by drivers themselves, creating a community-centric system where drivers let those behind them know what to expect. This app, which is unfortunately illegal for single-passenger drivers to utilize, will remain popular in the months and years ahead, despite its legal prohibition. The Utah Legislature should therefore fix the law and let this innovative tool do its job to ensure public safety.
Update: A reader points out, correctly, that the law referenced above contains an exception to the law “when reporting a safety hazard.” As such, Waze is apparently only illegal to enter data pertaining to the location of law enforcement officers, unless one were to argue that an officer stopped at roadside is also a safety hazard (a plausible argument, to be sure).