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The government may soon regulate your smartphone map apps

The U.S. Department of Transportation is taking a stance on the way drivers use navigation tools like Google Maps

Getting driving directions from Google Maps and other smartphone apps is a popular alternative to the expensive navigation systems in many cars, but these apps are also potentially dangerous as they can distract a driver, just like texting while driving. The dominant companies in the field are Google and Apple, which have made maps a central part of their smartphones — not only for navigation but also as a way to gather data for their search functions and apps.

In fact, The New York Times reported that in California, Steven Spriggs received a $165 ticket two years ago for using his iPhone while driving in stop-and-go traffic. A highway patrol officer rolled up alongside his car after seeing the glow from the screen on Spriggs’s face.

“I held it up and said, ‘It’s a map,’ ”Spriggs said. He was not talking on the phone, which is prohibited by California law. But the police officer would not budge. “He said, ‘Pull over, it doesn’t matter,’ ” said Spriggs.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is taking a firm stance on the way drivers use navigation tools. The department is intensifying its battle against distracted driving by seeking authority from Congress to regulate all navigation aids, including smartphones apps. A proposed bill would grant the National Highway Safety Administration the right to issue guidelines on the functionality of navigation apps that could be a threat to driver safety and spearhead changes to apps that don’t comply with the guidelines.


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The proposed bill has the support of automakers, which already comply with guidelines for built-in navigation systems, but it has run into opposition from technology companies, which say that any such law would be impossible to enforce. The technology industry has also voiced concern that the provision could give regulators the authority to review apps and order changes before the apps are put on the market, but safety officials said they would not have that power. Instead, they would retain the authority to have an app changed if it was deemed dangerous, in the same way they regulate cars and light trucks.

Critics of the proposed bill say it would not be practical for the government to monitor the large number of navigation apps and whether people are using them while driving or not. But, with injuries from car accidents involving distracted drivers on the rise, it’s likely the National Highway Safety Administration will keep looking for new ways to regulate how people use electronics while behind the wheel.

According to Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group, the navigation apps were not inherently dangerous. Being able to enter a new destination into a navigation device on the fly, he said, is a pretty good thing, but could easily be done by a passenger or by using voice commands.

The bill is expected to pass in Congress in some form by the end of the year.

Contributing Author

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Amanda Ciccatelli

Amanda G. Ciccatelli is a Freelance Journalist for InsideCounsel, where she covers intellectual property, legal technology, patent litigation, cybersecurity, innovation, and more. She earned a B.A....

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