Using a Cell Phone at a Red Light: Legal or Illegal?

Natalie Josef
November 23, 2011

There are a lot of people who have strong objections to using cell phones while driving, but I am one of the staunchest opponents you will ever meet. I never use my phone in the car, nor will I talk with someone who is using the phone while driving. If I am in a car and the driver wants to use his or her phone, I won’t shut up about it.

I am a very black and white person and this issue to me is black and white—you shouldn’t use your phone while driving. It’s illegal, it’s dangerous, and there is no excuse for it. If something is so important it can’t wait, I think you should pull over.

But I have a confession to make. Sometimes, while I am at a stop light, I will text. It’s just really quick, like telling my wife I will be there to pick her up in five minutes or to let her know I ran into traffic on the bridge. And once the light turns green, I stop using the phone immediately.

I do feel bad when I do this, like I am a hypocrite. I try to stick to my principles and beliefs even when it’s inconvenient. But part of me wonders if using my phone at a stop light is as bad as using it while the car is actually moving. Yeah, I’m in the car, but isn’t the whole “in motion” part the point? That you are distracted? I don’t feel distracted at a red light.

Enter Carl Nelson. In December 2009, Mr. Nelson was given a ticket when a police officer saw him dial a phone and put it up to his ear while waiting at a red light. Like me, Mr. Nelson was of the mind that the 2007 CA state law forbidding the use of handheld wireless devices only applied when the vehicle was actually in motion. So, he appealed the decision to the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.

Well, the judge didn’t see things my and Mr. Nelson’s way. The $103 ticket was upheld. Apparently, the law was originally intended to cover “persons driving on our public roadways, who, like (Nelson), may pause momentarily while doing so in order to comply with the rules of the road," said Justice James Lambden in the 3-0 ruling.

Since the spirit of the law is intended to protect public safety, trying to cram in a phone call while at a red light is deemed to still be a threat to the public. Nelson’s lawyer argued that this violated the Supreme Court’s definition of “driving,” established in 1991, that characterizes driving as “volitional movement.”

In the 1991 case, a man was arrested for drunk driving when police found him slumped over the steering wheel, asleep, in a car that was legally parked, with the motor still running. The court found him not guilty of drunk driving because the vehicle wasn’t moving. In Nelson’s case, the court ruled against him because though he wasn’t moving, he was on the street, thus creating the public safety threat.

At the end of his appeal, Nelson’s lawyer tried to get the court to take a position on whether it’s okay to use your phone to call home if you are stuck for hours in a traffic jam. The court refused to comment on this and other scenarios raised by the defense.

What do you think? Should it be okay to use your phone while you are stopped at a light? Do you think we need more or less restrictions when it comes to cell phone use and operating a motor vehicle?

Natalie Josef

About the Author

Natalie Josef is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

3 User Comments

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By , August 01, 2015
I think if you are stopped at a light that is not driving.
By , September 23, 2015
Is it illegal? Currently, yes. This is an example of a law being enforced as a means to its own end. There is reasonable evidence to support that driving while using a portable device is distracting and dangerous to those around you, and rightfully this is against the law. The evidence that this extends to a vehicle at a red light could charitably be referred to as tenuous.
By , August 16, 2016
Even if you are stopped at a red light, you are still officially operating a motor vehicle in traffic on a public motorway. While I agree that this "using the phone at a stoplight" can appear to be a gray area, you are still being inattentive. You are distracted from your primary task, which is operating an extremely powerful, 4,000 lb. piece of machinery. The fact that the automobile is not physically moving forward does not absolve the operator of the responsibility of being aware of one's ever-changing immediate surroundings. What if someone falls in the crosswalk in front of your car? What if a child is in the crosswalk? Or more likely, how do you know when the light has turned green? I have seen several drivers over the years entirely miss their opportunity to cross at an intersection on a green light because they were too engrossed in their phone to realize the signal had changed. That would most certainly fall within the parameters of 'distracted driving'. Lastly, arguing this point can become very contentious because it's easy to feel like it's a personal attack. That one choose between being a weak-willed technophile or a neurotic luddite in this argument. I contest that its neither. The reason why we're even having this debate is because of a confluence of variables. It's a consequence of the ubiquity of wifi, the convenience of modern mobile devices, and perhaps most importantly, the way the devices are engineered. The applications on our iPhones and Androids intelligently and deliberately designed to prey on our psychology. Check out the book "Hooked: How to build habit-forming products" by Nir Eyal. Every application from Facebook to Candy Crush is designed to tempt and beg us revisit them during the numerous micro-moments of boredom that permeate our everyday life - like when we find ourselves waiting for 45 seconds for a traffic light to change. Technology is a wonderful thing, but it's important to ask ourselves who is really in control. Me or the device? I have given this topic a great deal of thought and research, and yet I still find myself itching to pick up my phone at red lights. I've found the best remedy is to put the phone in the glove box or back seat to avoid the temptation entirely. Not because I'm a weak or bad person, but because it's just so damn tempting! Plus, I owe it to my fellow man to pay attention to the world around me when the key is in the ignition and the engine is running.