The beginning of August this year saw the state of Louisiana introduce a plethora of new laws. One of these novel laws concerns the use of mobile phones whilst driving. The state already had laws in place that banned the act of texting whilst driving. However, this law did not address the act of using social media websites whilst driving. The new law has been introduced to specifically tackle the issue of social media. Thus, from the 1st of August 2013 in the state of Louisiana, a person accessing social media on their phone whilst driving is breaking the law. If caught committing the offence a ticket may be issued for up to $175. Moreover, repeat offenders could attract fines up to $500. These values reflect the commensurate fines for the unlawful act of texting while driving.
Specifically ‘Social Networking Sites’
Interestingly the law does not introduce a general ban on the use of the Internet on smartphones while driving. The Act specifically focuses on accessing a “social networking site”. The Act defines “access, read, or post to a social networking site” as using a “wireless telecommunications device to access, read, or post on such device to any web-based service that allows individuals to construct a profile within a bounded system, articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and communicate with other members of the site.” At first it appears straightforward to understand what the legislature is attempting to prevent. In practical terms don’t use the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or LinkedIn whilst driving. However, the omission of reference to the general use of the Internet is somewhat bewildering. Why not introduce a blanket ban on using hand-held mobile phones whilst driving?
The Position in the UK
In the UK it has been illegal to use a hand held mobile phone while driving since the 1st of December 2003. In more precise terms it is illegal to use any hand-held device that performs an interactive communication function by transmitting and receiving data. An interactive communication function includes (i) sending or receiving oral or written messages; (ii) sending or receiving facsimile documents; (iii) sending or receiving still or moving images; and (iv) providing access to the Internet. In practical terms anything more than simply touching your mobile phone whilst driving could be construed as a breach of the law. Like the law or not it is pretty clear and straightforward.
The Position in Louisiana
Contrastingly, when you delve deeper, the new law in Louisiana is not that straightforward. The law presents two major uncertainties. First, what will qualify as social media or a social networking site? Second, how will a police officer ascertain that a motorist is accessing a social media site (as opposed to general Internet use)? Both questions broadly converge over the same analysis. To answer these questions it is perhaps worth paying credence to Cpl. L’Jean McKneely of Baton Rouge Police Department who was quoted as saying “If we see someone pushing keys while driving, that’s enough probable cause to give a citation.” Therefore in practical terms if you are caught using your mobile whilst driving it will be presumed you are in breach of the law. Thus, the position in practice is similar to that of the UK. Why then the specificity of only social media use?
Part of the reason for the exactitude of the law appears to be connected to the fact that “social media use” was previously used as a defence to texting and driving. According to police reports, under the previous law, persons pulled over for texting would say that they were in fact on social media and not texting. The state legislature wanted to remove this loophole. Nevertheless, the law far from removes all loopholes and is capable of leaving drivers in a state of uncertainty.
Room for Excuses?
The law arguably leaves some wiggle room. As the quote from Cpl. L’Jean McKneely above shows, police officers will effectively be operating on the basis of presumptions with regard to mobile phone use. The law may well operate efficiently with police officers catching the correct culprits but nobody will want to be relying on officers having to make guesses as to the use. For instance does the act of accessing a news site constitute a social networking site? Most news sites offer the reader the ability to post comments and interact with other users. If it is not social media, would it not be simple enough if pulled over to use the defence that you were using a news website? Or any other website that is not Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc.
There is no doubt that the law would be clearer if there was an all out ban on using a hand held device whilst driving. Despite the state legislature’s attempt at targeting social media the law still allows rooms for excuses. The exact scope of the law is unclear. Perhaps until there is clarification from the executive or in the way of some case law (should it get that far) drivers in Louisiana cannot be certain of the exact parameters of the law. Nevertheless, what drivers can be certain of is that using your mobile phone whilst driving remains extremely dangerous. Regardless of the exact application the safest thing to do is not use your phone at all.
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