Traffic Tribunal rules use of phone’s GPS function while driving is illegal


CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal has ruled that using a cell phone’s GPS function while driving is against the law.

The ruling from the Tribunal’s Appeals Panel was published in late August and upholds a fine for a man who was found to have violated state laws regarding texting while driving.

When a Trooper stopped Joseph Furtado on Route 146 in July 2015 and wrote him a ticket for texting while driving, Furtado argued that he was only using his phone’s GPS function to navigate and had not sent or received any text messages. According to court documents, the Trooper saw Furtado repeatedly looking down at the phone while driving before he pulled Furtado over.

At issue in the appeal was whether or not consulting the phone while driving – even if not using the phone to send text messages – constituted a violation of the statute. The Tribunal ruled that it did, and the appeals panel upheld that decision.

The appeals panel ruled that the use of the phrase “including, but not limited to” in the statute defining what a text message is indicates that the law was intended to “encompass more than merely instant messages, electronic messages, or e-mails.”

“Consequently, based on the plain language of the statute,” the judges wrote, “a reader may be looking at any visual display on the phone’s interface and be in violation of the statute. To hold otherwise would defeat the purpose of the statute: to prevent drivers from distractions caused by operation of a cell phone while driving.”

The appeals panel, citing the intent of the General Assembly in creating the distracted-driving law, took the prohibition a step further: “In sum, based on the legislative history of the statute and the definitions set forth by our Legislature, we conclude that  operating a cell phone for any purpose, including GPS, is prohibited by the statute.”

The decision has drawn mixed reactions.

“It’s a great ruling for the state of Rhode Island and the people who travel on our roads,” Captain Dennis Fleming of the Rhode Island State Police told Saturday afternoon. Any use of a phone, whether for texting, navigating, or even making a call, can result in distracted driving, he said. The ruling will not change the State Police’s enforcement of the statute.

“It was overreaching,” said local resident Mike Harrington. “I think you should be able to use your GPS on your handheld.”

According to the same state law, a “global navigation satellite receiver” that only works as a GPS navigation device is exempted from the statute.

The traffic tribunal’s decision has been appealed to District Court.