Step away from that map app

Melissa Preddy
Car Culture

Ahead of the long holiday weekend, when many people are taking off for their final summer vacations, officials are reminding motorists that it’s illegal to be scrolling through their smartphone navigation apps while driving.

The penalties for getting caught fussing with the screen can range up to $250 and six points on one’s license. Novice drivers may automatically lose their driving privileges for a violation.

Unfortunately for us, those warnings are from officials in Britain to motorists there. Laws enacted this year have banned that entire nation from a variety of behind-the-wheel hand-held device use, including what the Brits call their “satnav” or satellite navigation apps. (It’s already illegal to make phone calls on a hand-held device while driving in the U.K., or even if you’re stopped but with the engine running.)

I wish the same could be said here in the United States, especially after enduring several harrowing rides lately when the person behind the wheel kept glancing over at a smartphone map app and flicking through it.

As usual, my thoughts centered around one primal, if silent, shriek: “Why can’t they just read a paper map?” Especially for trips within 10 or 20 miles of home. Is it that tough to figure out in advance where the new Costco across town is located?

There seems to be a chasm between those who like to envision and memorize the entire route ahead of time, and those who prefer that a disembodied voice tell them what to do every couple hundred yards. GPS proponents argue that apps direct them around traffic clogs, and that they are more up to date than dead-tree road atlases.

Fine, look at the screen before you fire the ignition. Memorize. If you need to look again, pull to the shoulder or wheel into a parking lot. Please don’t do the glance-over-and-flick thing.

Those of us who exhort map use are seen as Luddites or fogeys. Perhaps, but then again a folded map in the side pocket has caused a lot fewer auto accidents than the mesmerizing lure of the cell phone. Repeatedly looking away from the road to check a tiny screen takes its toll. I don’t have stats on GPS use, but a similar function — reading a text — will take your attention from the road for the length of a football field at 55 mph, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Is it really worth it?

Distracted driving killed 3,477 people in the U.S. in 2015, or about 10 a day, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The CDC says about 1,000 people a day are injured by distracted drivers, too.

The good news is there are pending crackdowns in the U.S. The bad news is there is still a patchwork of state regulations, and it’s murky as to what is allowed where. Most states prohibit texting, but beyond that the rules and interpretations vary considerably and are vague on phone-based GPS. Last year, a tribunal in Rhode Island ruled that charges against a driver pulled over for repeatedly looking down at his phone could stick, even though he claimed to be only consulting his satnav.

In California, having the phone in hand to use GPS is outlawed as of this year, but you still can tap the screen of a GPS app if the phone is mounted to your car’s dashboard.

Aside from the direct dangers of distraction, failing to outlaw interactive GPS use while in motion creates, it seems to me, a loophole for drivers who violate texting-and-driving rules. As things stand now, pretty much anyone could claim to be looking at a map instead of tapping out a text should they be pulled over.

Surely anyone who’s going to operate a vehicle weighing thousands of pounds should be able to decipher a traditional map or road atlas before climbing behind the wheel, just as we expect drivers to understand street signs and the instrumentation on their dashboards.

The trade-offs for turn-by-turn guidance while underway simply aren’t worth the risks.

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via