Does Using Your Phone’s GPS Count as Distracted Driving?



In March of this year, the Florida legislature failed, again, to pass a law cracking down on the scourge of texting while driving on Florida roads. This is a shame, since “distracted driving” has caused a surge in accidents in Florida, and Florida has some of the weakest laws in the nation to address it.

The legislature’s inability to address the extreme danger of texting-while-driving highlights the dim prospects of there being any movement on another, less-prominent, distracted driving danger: use of GPS devices. In this article, we discuss what constitutes “distracted driving” generally, and how using GPS devices can fall into that category just as much as texting does. We also discuss what you should do if you are injured in an accident involving driver distraction with a GPS device.

What Is “Distracted Driving”?


Although “distracted driving” is not defined in current Florida statutes, the Florida Department of Transportation describes it as “anything that takes the driver’s attention away from the vital task of driving.” Described that way, a wide range of activities could potentially qualify as “distracted driving,” including texting, tuning the radio, talking on the phone, and, as discussed here, using a GPS system. However defined, distracted driving is a major problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) reports that in 2016, distracted driving claimed 3,450 lives on U.S. roads. In 2015, it caused 391,000 injuries.

Considering the widespread use of smartphones and GPS devices, perhaps these numbers aren’t surprising. What is surprising is how many Floridians do not realize the dangers of using those devices while behind the wheel. As the NHTSA points out, at 55 miles per hour, taking your eyes off the road for just five seconds to fiddle with a GPS is the equivalent of driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.

How a GPS Device Causes Dangerous Distraction


Knowing how a GPS can be dangerous is the first step in using it responsibly. According to the Florida DOT, distracted driving comes in three forms: manual (taking your hands off the wheel), visual (taking your eyes off the road), and cognitive (taking your mind off of the task of driving). Unfortunately, using a GPS device can impact all three of these.

  • Manual. Unless a GPS device has a voice command function accessible from a button on the steering wheel or an “always listening” mode (like “Hey Siri”), it usually requires you to use at least one hand to execute commands, like typing in an address or pressing “Start Route.” Even devices with voice command may require you to press a button to activate them.
  • Visual. Whether you’re typing an address into a GPS, or looking at it to see your position on a map, using a GPS requires you to divert your eyes from the road. Ideally, you should not have to do so for more than a second or two, but sometimes it’s easy to want to look longer, which can increase danger quickly.
  • Cognitive. As Time reported in 2016, cognitive function may well be the biggest area in which using a GPS can distract a driver. GPS’s demand our attention, and sometimes in surprising ways. They speak to us. They reroute us. They invite our mental engagement at times when all of our attention should be focused on the road ahead. (Just think of how quickly tension, and distraction, escalates when a GPS tells you to take a turn and you don’t see what it means.)

GPSs also erode our cognitive map-making abilities. Mental maps—that is, knowing where you’re going because you’re familiar with a route and have it pre-planned in your head—are a particularly useful human skill. They allow us to develop situational awareness of potential dangers on the road ahead by comparing our expectation of what the road should look like with how it actually looks. They also help us navigate under sub-optimal road conditions, like in rain or at night.

But GPS devices effectively replace that mental map, which over time can cause us to lose that instinct for where we are going. We become dependent on a GPS to tell us our route. And, when the GPS makes a mistake or disconnects in areas with bad reception, unprepared drivers can become stressed, distracted, or unwilling to follow their own instinct. Consider the stories of drivers following a GPS’s instructions and driving into a lake.

Finally, GPS devices can cause distracted driving even when you’re not paying visual attention to them and you can operate them hands-free. For instance, when drivers make mistakes or skip exits, the GPS alerts them with a noise or an instruction to make a radical course change. These sudden interruptions can be jarring, which makes them dangerous. Any focus on following directions instead of observing the environment for dangers can certainly count as distracted driving.

How to Reduce the Danger of Using a GPS Device


Now that you know the dangers, here are four ways use your GPS responsibly:

1. Familiarize yourself with the visual route. Before you head out to a new destination, look at the map. Familiarize yourself with the major turns and identify any spots with tricky navigation. With that bit of mental forewarning, you can reduce potential panics and mistakes. It also helps reduce your reliance on minute-by-minute instructions from a GPS.

2. It’s better to turn around than follow directions that don’t make sense. If your GPS is telling you that you have to make a split-second decision, ignore it for a moment. Focus on safely driving past the intersection or point of contention. Then you can turn into a parking lot and check the map visually. Even if you are on a deadline or are running behind, focus on safety instead of following your app’s directions.

3.
Set your destination and preferences before you start. Get your GPS organized early. Type in the address and decide which available route you want to take before you put the car in drive. Inputting information and making choices is even more distracting than following a GPS’s instructions might be.

If you need to change your route halfway through the drive, pull over before you start. This might be frustrating, especially if you’re stuck in traffic and pulling over would add several minutes to your drive. But if you’re frustrated and tempted to modify your GPS to find a better route, other drivers are probably doing the exact same thing. That means it’s even more important to stay vigilant and keep your car safe.

4. Have your passenger handle navigation. Nobody likes a side seat driver, but your trip may be safer if you have one. A person can give you early warning about complex directions and visually inspect the map. Studies show that talking to a passenger is safer than talking over the phone, and part of that is because passengers are cognizant of the road conditions. They know when to stop talking and when to point something out. Passengers who are operating your GPS can apply the same filter and reduce potential distractions at key moments.

Injured by a Driver Distracted by GPS? Call the Dolman Law Group


Ultimately, your state and city will decide what is legally considered distracted driving with a GPS app or device. But if you drive in a gray area, use your best judgment. Only use your GPS if you can focus on the primary task of driving and can safely ignore any distractions it offers.

If you were in a collision with a driver using GPS and suspect distracted driving was to blame, contact us at Dolman Law Group. or call us at (727) 451-6900. We represent people injured in auto accidents and their families, and can help you ensure that distracted drivers are held accountable.

Dolman Law Group
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765
(727) 451-6900

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