No device or object has proven to be more distracting to people of all demographics than a handheld cell phone. In their studies, the University of Chicago and the University of Texas at Austin found that even the presence of a smartphone, shut off or faced down, was enough to take away from someone’s cognitive capacity and performance. A study by Carnegie Mellon University also showed that listening to a cell phone reduced brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent.
From a disciplined adult to an adolescent, the handheld cell phone’s power is ubiquitous. Not only does it capture and hold attention, but it can stop people from completing tasks they normally would be able to do.
On the road, however, the distractions of cell phone use can become life and death. In 2018, 2,841 people were killed from distracted driving crashes, and of those, 1 in 5 were pedestrians, bikers or outside of vehicles.
Today, more states are passing laws that restrict or attempt to restrict cell phone use to keep people safe and curb distracted driving habits. In fact, 49 states currently have laws on the books that ban texting while driving, while 25 have laws that ban or restrict all handheld cellphone use behind the wheel.
Distracted driving is defined as any activity that takes away attention or focus from safe driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Time and again, studies have shown the subtle to significant costs of multitasking on productivity and focus and that distraction behind the wheel can be disastrous. In 2018, distraction caused eight percent of fatal crashes, 15 percent of injury crashes, and 14 percent of all police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes.
Types of Distractions:
There are three types of distraction: visual, manual, and cognitive.
What makes handheld cell phone use so dangerous is that it can represent all three types of distraction at once. Sometimes, we may glance down at our device and continue on with the task at hand, but most of the time we are picking up our smartphones and looking through them intently, consumed in the text message, social media post, or playlist that caught our attention.
In that time, we are likely to miss the car next to us signaling and switching into our lane, or the stoplight turning red. A couple filed a lawsuit against Apple after a Texas driver killed their five-year-old daughter while using FaceTime, an app for video or audio calls in 2014.
Fatal crashes caused by distracted driving are preventable, but prevention relies on two factors: human behavior and how state laws and fines influence human behavior. Nearly every state in the United States regulates cell phone use in driving in some form, whether it is by limiting cell phone use for all drivers, novice drivers or school bus drivers through state laws, or banning texting and driving statewide.
Most have primary enforcement laws, which means that a police officer can stop and ticket the driver specifically for the violation of texting and driving. Secondary enforcement means the police officer is only permitted to stop and ticket the driver for texting and driving if there is another act of violation (such as speeding).
Throughout the United States, most states have laws that ban some but not all cell phone use and provide special guidelines for specific groups of drivers, including young and novice drivers, bus drivers, drivers of commercial vehicles, and federal employees. No state, however, bans all cell phone use for all drivers.
|State||Handheld Ban||Handheld Enforcement||Texting Ban (All Drivers)||Texting Enforcement||Novices (All phones)|
|Alabama||No||N/A||Yes||Primary||16, or 17 w/ Intermediate license <6 months|
|Arkansas||18 – 20 years old (primary), school and work zones (secondary)||Primary, Secondary||Yes||Primary||<18|
|Delaware||Yes||Primary||Yes||Primary||Learner or intermediate license|
|Iowa||No||N/A||Yes||Primary||Restricted or intermediate license|
|Kansas||No||N/A||Yes||Primary||Learner or intermediate license|
|Louisiana||Learner or intermediate license in school zones only||Primary||Yes||Primary||<18|
|Maine||Yes||Primary||Yes||Primary||Learner or intermediate license|
|Michigan||No||N/A||Yes||Primary||Level 1 or 2 License|
|Minnesota||Yes||Primary||Yes||Primary||<18 or provisional license|
|Nebraska||No||N/A||Yes||Secondary||<18 w/ Learner or intermediate license|
|New Jersey||Yes||Primary||Yes||Primary||Permit or provisional license|
|New Mexico||No||N/A||Yes||Primary||Learner or provisional license|
|Oklahoma||Learner or intermediate license only||Primary||Yes||Primary||No|
|South Dakota||No||N/A||Yes||Secondary||Learner or Intermediate License|
|Tennessee||Yes||Primary||Yes||Primary||Learner or Intermediate License|
|Texas||In school crossing zones and on public school property only||Primary||Yes||Primary||<18|
|Virginia||In highway work zones only||Primary||Yes||Primary||<18|
|Washington||Yes||Primary||Yes||Primary||Learner or intermediate license|
|West Virginia||Yes||Primary||Yes||Primary||<18 w/ Learner or Intermediate License|
|Wisconsin||No||N/A||Yes||Primary||Learner or intermediate license|
It is especially important for novice drivers – specifically teenagers and young adults – to not use their cellphones while driving, as they are most at risk of being involved in a fatal crash caused by cell phone use. Cell phone use while driving is most common and most distracting for ages 15 to 19, regardless of their intellect. Straight-A or B students were found to text or email while driving as often as C or D students.
Almost all U.S. states also have in place fines for texting and driving and/or cell phone or electronic use while driving. The notable exception is Montana, where there is no current state ban on texting or handheld cellphone use. In fact, only two states – Montana and Missouri – do not have laws that ban texting for all drivers (in Missouri, drivers under the age of 21 found texting and driving face a $2oo fine and 2 points on their license). However, even in Montana, some cities and jurisdictions have enacted texting bans despite the absence of a statewide law.
Fines typically vary depending on the number of violations as well as sometimes the age of the driver. First violations can vary from as low as $10 to as high as $500.
|Alaska||$500||$50,000||$100,000||$250,000||Felonies and fines are determined by collision, serious injury or death.|
|Arkansas||$25-$250||$50-$500||N/A||N/A||Fines doubled that involve collisions|
|California||$20.00||$50.00||N/A||N/A||Fines for penalty assessment which can increase your total fine to $60 to $150|
|Colorado||$50-$300||$100-$1,000||N/A||N/A||Varies for minors and adults|
|Delaware||$50-$100||$100-$300||N/A||N/A||Varies on age of driver and vehicle.|
|Hawaii||$100-$2,750||$200-$300||$300-$500||N/A||Varies for where and what type of vehicles are involved|
|Idaho||$85-$100||N/A||N/A||Varies by county, some are hands-free while others aren’t, $300 fine for “inattentive” driving.|
|Illinois||$120-$1,000||$120-$1,000||$120-$1,500||$2,500-$25,000||Fines have ranges and are more for violations that cause bodily harm or death.|
|Iowa||$100||$500||$1,000||N/A||Fines vary by type of violation: standard, serious injury, and death.|
|Kansas||$60-$250||N/A||N/A||Fines vary by age of the driver. Courts have the discretion to increase the amount.|
|Louisiana||$250-500||$500-$1,000||N/A||N/A||Fines vary by age and if the violation involves collision and school zone.|
|Maine||$25-$500||$250-$500||N/A||N/A||Fines vary by age and have ranges for first second violations.|
|Maryland||$75-$500||$125-$500||$175-$500||N/A||Fines vary by violation, cellphone tickets are less than testing tickets|
|Michigan||$100||$200||N/A||N/A||Fines vary by age and depend on if you are a commercial or bus driver.|
|Missouri||$200||N/A||N/A||N/A||Drivers under the age of 21|
|New Jersey||$200-$400/ $1,000||$400-$600||$600-$800||N/A||Public transportation violations face a $1,00 fine and 6 months of jail time.|
|North Carolina||$25-$100||N/A||N/A||N/A||Fines vary by type of driver, underage, school bus.|
|North Dakota||$20- $100||N/A||N/A||N/A||Fines vary by type of age|
|Oklahoma||$100-$500||N/A||N/A||N/A||Fines vary by type of driver, commercial or general.|
|Tennessee||$50-$100||N/A||$100||N/A||Fines vary based on the zone they occur in.|
|Virginia||$125||$250||N/A||N/A||$2,750 fine for drivers of commercial vehicles.|
|Wyoming||$75-$90||N/A||N/A||N/A||Varies on the circumstances|
While we could use more studies, the studies we do have show that cell phone restriction laws work in the reduction of fatal crashes, specifically when they are paired with primary law enforcement and high-visibility enforcement. More people are likely to follow the law when there is high-visibility enforcement, such as police enforcement of cell-phone use laws and increased awareness through the media.
In addition, we already know that the effects of similar laws, such as drunk driving laws and seat belt safety laws have proven successful in reducing deaths. It is also interesting how many studies continue to show how distracting cell phone use is overall, not only in the physically dangerous environment of driving but also in the academic and test environment at schools. In 2019, Alaska became the first state where cell phone use is banned in high schools.
Whether it is in school, or on the road, handheld cell phone use proves to be the most distracting device or object for all people and for all ages. It decreases performance level and ability to respond – and in the case of driving, the consequences can be dire. While we likely cannot prevent being distracted by phones altogether, we do have control over when we allow them in our physical and headspace. However, it may feel like we are not always able to make that choice ourselves.
Handheld cell phone use bans have their place in our society and paired with high-visibility enforcement, they can only help in increasing our safety and decision-making on and off the roads.