When driving with GPS is against the law

Distracted-driving rules cover using your smart phone to get directions. Here's how to avoid tickets—and stay safe.

Published: August 06, 2014 08:00 AM

We love our GPS navigation devices, if only because they spare us from begging for directions from clueless strangers. And whether we get our GPS data from a stand-alone personal navigation device or a smart phone, we can rest assured that they are legal in all 50 states, unlike, say, radar detectors.

Well, not always. GPS devices are covered under distracted-driving laws. Whether you're in compliance depends on how you use them, even how you install them. And failing to follow the rules is not only expensive in terms of tickets, points against your license, and higher insurance premiums, it can also be dangerous.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 421,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver in 2012 (those are the latest figures available) and 3,328 of them died. Those figures include many forms of driving distractions, including texting, grooming, and fiddling with the in-dash radio. And, yes, GPS apps were involved in some of those crashes.

Jeffrey Levine, a New York City-based attorney specializing in traffic-violation cases, says the growing popularity of smart phones has kept him busy. "A lot of people think it's okay to hold an iPhone in your hands and use it in GPS or speakerphone mode," he said. "That's not only illegal, but a good way to get injured or killed."

Looking for in-car navigation? Find the right model for your needs and budget with our GPS buying guide and Ratings.

Even if you escape injury while doing that, you are risking a substantial amount in fines and other penalties. For example, in New York State, improper use of a cell phone while driving can slap 5 points on your license, which not only carries penalties of its own, but can also help propel you into a new category of penalties, New York's Driver Responsibility Assessment, a fee that can be as high as $750 to be paid off in three years.  In New York, your license to drive goes bye-bye when you accrue 11 points.

Wherever you live, here's what you can do to avoid trouble.

Go hands-off

While law specifics vary from state to state, one situation is always illegal: holding an electronic device, including a phone, while operating a motor vehicle.

"The way the laws are written," Levine said, "if you're holding an electronic device in a prominent manner, there's a presumption that you're using it." But cops don't have to see the device. Sometimes all it takes is for them to see that you don't have both hands on the wheel.

If you need to make a call, send a text, or program your GPS, do it before you leave, or pull into a safe place on the side of the road.  Some states, such as New York, do make allowances for medical and other 911 emergencies.

Being pulled over can open another can of worms. The police will have the right to check for other violations, such as not wearing safety belts and driving with expired insurance cards.

Mount your device properly

According to GPStracklog, a site devoted to the care and feeding of GPS enthusiasts, mounting your phone or PND on a windshield—including using the mount made for your device—is illegal in 28 states.

And even where windshield mounts are legal, some states are quite particular about where on the windshield they can go. For instance, in California and Hawaii, you can windshield-mount a GPS device within a 5-inch section on the driver's side, or a 7-inch section on the passenger side. California adds the proviso that the installation not interfere with air bags. Some states are a bit vaguer than that. Minnesota statutes 169.70 and 169.72, for instance, stipulate that: "A person shall not drive or operate any motor vehicle with global positioning systems or navigation systems when mounted or located near the bottom-most portion of the windshield."

If state laws ruin your plans for a windshield mount, don't worry, you've still got plenty of OEM and aftermarket options. Most manufacturers include a plastic disk that sticks to the dashboard to give you an alternative mounting location. Another option is a bean bag mount, which simply sits on the dashboard and has a rubberized surface to hold it in place.

Choose the right device

Smart phones give you multiple options for GPS navigation apps, complete with traffic views, alternate-route suggestions, and other features to ensure a smooth trip. And their large, often-bright displays make them easy read on a sun-drenched dashboard. But phone apps use up precious data from your monthly plan to update the maps, and they may lose their way during phone calls or when you drop your cellular signal.

Heavy GPS users may want to consider a stand-alone device for GPS navigation, such as one of the recommended models from our recently updated Ratings. Most come with free lifetime map updates and traffic reporting, though the traffic data they display is often not as current or as detailed as the data you get on cell phones. Look for models with displays of at least 4.3 inches. The larger the screen, the easier it will be to see street names and other map details. Larger displays also mean that buttons and keyboards are more convenient to use when you are entering addresses.

—Mike Gikas

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Electronics News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more