This topic started out with what seemed like a simple question from my friend Brandon Dufour, one of Connecticut’s most astute driving instructors and the owner of the All-Star Driving School. A parent of one of his teen driver students insisted that even though our state bans teen drivers from using any “mobile electronic device,” even hands-free, a Global Positioning System (aka “GPS”) is exempt from this ban. Brandon asked for help in responding to this parent.
This seemingly straightforward question turned out to be a rather complex one, and one that led me down several research paths during the past few weeks. GPS’s and mobile electronic devices will be the subject of several upcoming blog posts.
I guess I should have figured out that Brandon’s question was not easy from the fact that my first two reactions — perhaps yours also — were exactly opposite. On the one hand, a GPS helps us with directions, and so it is a safety aid. What could be wrong with that? On the other hand, a GPS is an electronic device with a screen and a keyboard, and thus exactly the kind of distraction from driving that causes accidents. These can’t both be correct, I thought.
I have not researched all 50 states, but let me start with my home state and then throw in a national reference. Here in Connecticut, our teen driver law states that 16 and 17 year old drivers may not use any “mobile electronic device” while driving. This means ”any hand-held or other portable electronic equipment,” which includes any texting device, pager, personal digital assistant, laptop computer, or video game. However, the definition specifically excludes “audio equipment” and any equipment “installed for the purpose of providing navigation,” emergency assistance, or video entertainment to passengers in the rear seats. [Digression: why it makes a difference that a GPS is installed vs. plugged into the car's cigarette lighter is beyond me - future blog post.]
This law clearly allows any driver, including any teen, to use a GPS while driving because it “provides navigation,” right? Not so fast (no pun intended). Another part of Connecticut’s motor vehicle law says that “No person shall engage in any activity not related to the actual operation of the motor vehicle that interferes with the safe operating of the vehicle.” So, if a teen driver takes her eye off the road to type in an address on GPS, is she violating the law?
This contradiction also appears in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) published national model for state law texting-while-driving prohibitions, http://www.distraction.gov/files/dot/texting-law-021910.pdf. NHTSA’s model makes it illegal to “manually type or enter multiple letters, numbers, symbols or other text” into a wireless device, but it exempts “receiving messages related to the operation or navigation of a motor vehicle,” which would seem to allow use of a GPS.
It would appear, then, that at least Connecticut’s law and NHTSA’s national model do not consider a GPS to be the type of electronic device that teen drivers should be prohibited from using. But let us as parents and instructors of teen drivers consider whether using a GPS is a good idea, legal or not.
GPS’s are amazing devices that provide directions to our destination and pinpoint the location of our vehicle. The safety advantage can be substantial to drivers, emergency responders, and law enforcement. Yet, consider these drawbacks:
- Unless your GPS is voice activated (and some are, but in my understanding, very few at this time), using one requires typing in an address, which is no different from, and every bit as dangerous as, texting if it occurs while the car is in motion.
- A GPS has a screen, which is unquestionably a distraction from the road ahead.
- GPS’s are not infallible, of course, and perhaps the only thing more dangerous than a teen driver is a confused or lost teen driver.
- GPS voice commands, in a subtle way, direct us where and when to turn, but may give the impression that it is safe to turn, which may or may not be the case. In other words, I worry that for a teen driver, a voice command from a GPS may be taken (as illogical as it may sound) as the GPS’s evaluation that the turn can be made safely, as if the GPS has also evaluated traffic surrounding the vehicle.
- The simple fact is that teen drivers are still learning to drive, and a GPS is one more thing to think about.
All of above considered, here are several recommendations for parents considering whether their teen driver should use a GPS:
- In general, for the reasons listed above, your teen should avoid using a GPS, if possible, even if it is technically legal.
- Don’t let a GPS lull you or your teen into skipping one of the most important steps that should precede every time a teen driver gets behind the wheel – planning the intended route. Put another way, do not under any circumstances think that using a GPS is a reason to allow your teen to jump into a car and drive to an unfamiliar place without planning, because the GPS voice will show the way.
- If your teen intends to use a GPS, make its use a part of the teen’s supervised training. Don’t start a teen on a GPS for the first time when he or she begins to drive solo.
- Emphasize to your teen that, if a GPS will/must be used, typing an address must be done before the car is in motion, and if the address needs to be revised, the teen should pull off the road into a safe place.
In an earlier post on this blog, I lamented the intrusion of video screens into the dashboard of cars. The auto and electronics industries, while issuing warnings about the responsibility of individual drivers to keep their eyes on the road, are working together to increase exactly the type of distractions that are costing thousands of lives each year. In my opinion, we should not even be debating whether teen drivers should use a GPS. I have put this post together only after concluding, somewhat to my surprise, that our teen driver laws don’t ban GPS’s as mobile electronic devices, and our anti-texting laws (for everyone else) don’t ban them, on the basis that they assist navigation. But parents, just because a GPS is legal doesn’t mean that it does not increase the already considerable danger of teen driving.
As always, I would welcome your comments.