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Distracted Driving: Cell Phone Driving Laws by State

December 3, 2020

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.  

What is Distracted Driving?

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.

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Types of Distractions:

There are three types of distraction: visual, manual, and cognitive.

  • Visual distraction is when you are removing your gaze off the road.  
  • Manual distraction is when you are releasing your grip from the steering wheel.
  • Cognitive distraction is when your thoughts and mind stray away from the road.

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. 

Regulating Cell Phone Use While Driving:

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). 

 

All Handheld Cell Phone Driving Laws by State

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.

Handheld Cell Phone Use:

  •  25 states currently have laws that ban handheld cell phone use for all drivers with primary enforcement.
  • Five states have partial bans on handheld cell phones – Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia.  (Arizona recently passed a law moving it’s ban from novice drivers to all drivers)

Texting and Driving:

  • The majority of 48 states ban texting while driving for all drivers, including 44 states with primary enforcement and four states with secondary enforcement.  
  •  Montana remains the only state without any statewide ban for texting and driving. 
  •   Missouri only has a statewide ban for drivers under the age of 21 years old. 
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
Alaska No N/A Yes Primary No
Arizona Yes Primary Yes Primary <18
Arkansas 18 – 20 years old (primary), school and work zones (secondary) Primary, Secondary Yes Primary <18
California Yes Primary Yes Primary <18
Colorado No N/A Yes Primary <18
Connecticut Yes Primary Yes Primary Yes
D.C. Yes Primary Yes Primary Learners permit
Delaware Yes Primary Yes Primary Learner or intermediate license
Florida Yes Primary Yes Secondary No
Georgia Yes Primary Yes Primary No
Hawaii Yes Primary Yes Primary <18
Idaho No N/A Yes Primary No
Illinois Yes Primary Yes Primary <19
Indiana No N/A Yes Primary <21
Iowa No N/A Yes Primary Restricted or intermediate license
Kansas No N/A Yes Primary Learner or intermediate license
Kentucky No N/A Yes Primary <18
Louisiana Learner or intermediate license in school zones only Primary Yes Primary <18
Maine Yes Primary Yes Primary Learner or intermediate license
Maryland Yes Primary Yes Primary <18
Massachusetts Yes Primary Yes Primary <18
Michigan No N/A Yes Primary Level 1 or 2 License
Minnesota Yes Primary Yes Primary <18 or provisional license
Mississippi No N/A Yes Primary No
Missouri No N/A No N/A No
Montana No N/A No N/A No
Nebraska No N/A Yes Secondary <18 w/ Learner or intermediate license
Nevada Yes Primary Yes Primary No
New Hampshire Yes Primary Yes Primary <18
New Jersey Yes Primary Yes Primary Permit or provisional license
New Mexico No N/A Yes Primary Learner or provisional license
New York Yes Primary Yes Primary No
North Carolina No N/A Yes Primary <18
North Dakota No N/A Yes Primary <18
Ohio No N/A Yes Secondary <18
Oklahoma Learner or intermediate license only Primary Yes Primary No
Oregon Yes Primary Yes Primary <18
Pennsylvania No N/A Yes Primary No
Rhode Island Yes Primary Yes Primary <18
South Carolina No N/A 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
Utah No N/A Yes Primary <18
Vermont Yes 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
Wyoming No N/A Yes Primary No

 

Other Bans:

Novice Drivers: 

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.

  •  38 states ban cell phone use for all novice drivers, including 32 states with primary enforcement and six states with secondary enforcement. 
  • Studies show that restrictions on nighttime driving and the number of teenage passengers help reduce fatal crashes for teenage drivers.

Federal Employees:

  •  In 2009, President Obama issued an Executive Order that banned federal employees from texting and driving when they were on official business or driving government-owned vehicles.   
  •  In 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation banned commercial vehicle drivers from texting and driving, and railroad operating employees from using their cellphone and/or electronic device while working. In 2011, the ban extended to all handheld cellphone use by commercial drivers and drivers with hazardous weapons.

Bus Drivers

  • 20 states and D.C. ban all cellphone use for bus drivers.

 

Fines for Cell Phone Use and Texting While Driving Violations

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.

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Federal Employees:

  • Currently, Alaska holds the most serious penalty for cell phone use violations. In Alaska, the first violation fine for texting while driving is $500, but if the cell phone use causes serious injuries or death, the driver can face a felony conviction and a fine increase of up to $250,000. 
  • A texting while driving conviction in Utah will add 50 points to the person’s driving record, while most states only add 1-5 points, if any. This can significantly impact a driver’s insurance rate and also, possibly lead to driver’s license suspension.
  • In New Jersey, public transportation drivers can face up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine for a cell phone use/texting and driving violation.   
  • Fine totals will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction within each state due to court and other fees.

 

State First Violation Second Third Fourth Other
Alabama $25 $50 $75 $75 N/A
Alaska $500 $50,000 $100,000 $250,000 Felonies and fines are determined by collision, serious injury or death.
Arizona $75-$149 $159-$250 N/A N/A N/A
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
Connecticut $150 $300 $500 N/A N/A
Delaware $50-$100 $100-$300 N/A N/A Varies on age of driver and vehicle.
Florida $30 $60 N/A N/A N/A
Georgia $50 $100 $150 N/A N/A
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.
Indiana $33.50 $250.50 $500 N/A N/A
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.
Kentucky $25 $50 N/A N/A N/A
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
Massachusetts $100 $250 $500 N/A N/A
Michigan $100 $200 N/A N/A Fines vary by age and depend on if you are a commercial or bus driver.
Minnesota $50 $275 N/A N/A N/A
Mississippi $100 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Missouri $200 N/A N/A N/A Drivers under the age of 21
Montana N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Nebraska $200 $300 $500 N/A N/A
Nevada $50 $100 $250 N/A N/A
New Hampshire $100 $250 $500 N/A N/A
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.
New Mexico $25 $50 N/A N/A N/A
New York $50-$200 $50-$250 $50-$450 N/A N/A
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
Ohio $150 $300 N/A N/A N/A
Oklahoma $100-$500 N/A N/A N/A Fines vary by type of driver, commercial or general.
Oregon $260 $435 N/A N/A N/A
Pennsylvania $50 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Rhode Island $100 $150 $250 N/A N/A
South Carolina $25 N/A N/A N/A N/A
South Dakota $100 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Tennessee $50-$100 N/A $100 N/A Fines vary based on the zone they occur in.
Texas $25-$99 $100-$200 N/A N/A N/A
Utah $100 $1,000 $10,000 N/A N/A
Vermont $100-$200 $250-$500 N/A N/A N/A
Virginia $125 $250 N/A N/A $2,750 fine for drivers of commercial vehicles.
Washington $30-$48 $96- $100 N/A N/A N/A
West Virginia $100 $200 $300 N/A N/A
Wisconsin $10-$400 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Wyoming $75-$90 N/A N/A N/A Varies on the circumstances

 

Do Cell Phone and Texting and Driving Bans Work? 

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 a recent study, handheld cellphone use reduced by 57 percent in Hartford, Connecticut, after hand cell phone bans and publicized high-visibility enforcement. Rates in the control community, however, remained mostly the same.
  • The same study found that handheld cellphone use dropped between 24 percent and 76 percent in three jurisdictions seven years after the bans went into place.  In all three jurisdictions, there were no sustained priority enforcement campaigns.  
  • From 2010 to 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also found a drop in cell-phone use while driving from high-visibility enforcement in four communities: Sacramento Valley Region in California, Hartford, Connecticut, Delaware, and Syracuse, New York. 
  • According to an American Journal of Public Health study, states with a texting and driving ban had a four percent decrease in motor-vehicle crash-related emergencies. 
  • A city in Illinois called Evanston said following the cell phone ban, there was a 14.5 percent drop in injuries from traffic-related accidents.

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.