Distracted Driving Laws
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Understand Distracted Driving Laws

Distracted driving laws are in place to help manage distractions in the car, a major crash risk for newly licensed teen drivers and for all drivers. In 2017, distracted driving was reported in crashes that killed 3,166 people (8.6 percent of all fatalities), although many instances may go unreported. Distraction was a key factor in 58 percent of crashes involving drivers ages 16 to 19, according to a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety Study. CHOP researchers found that being distracted by something inside or outside the vehicle is one of three "critical errors" that account for nearly half of serious crashes involving teens behind the wheel.

Strong laws against distracted driving are now on the books. Currently, 20 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have instituted a hand-held cell phone ban for all drivers, and all have primary enforcement (police may issue a driver for using a hand-held cell phone without any other traffic offense taking place). In 21 states and Washington, DC all cell phone use for school bus drivers is prohibited. No state bans all cell phone use for all drivers, but in 39 states and in Washington, DC all cell phone use is banned for novice drivers.

Some towns and cities have additional regulations beyond their state’s distracted driving laws. However, preemption laws are in place in some states to prohibit local jurisdictions from enacting their own distracted driving bans. These states include Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Carolina.

Texting While Driving Laws

In 2007, Washington was the first state to pass a texting while driving ban. Currently, texting while driving is banned in 48 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands, and all but three have primary enforcement (police may issue a driver for texting while driving without any other traffic offense taking place). Of the two states without an all driver texting ban, one prohibits text messaging by novice drivers. 

All states except Connecticut and New Hampshire include at least one category for distraction on police crash report forms, although the specific data collected varies. The Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria (MMUCC) guidelines provide best practices on distraction data collection.

GDL Laws on Distracted Driving

Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) provisions also include restrictions to help prevent distracted driving for newly licensed teens and research shows most teens do comply with GDL:

  • Cell phone use by novice drivers is banned in 39 states and the District of Columbia.
  • 46 states and the District of Columbia have passenger limits in place during the intermediate license period.

Research examining cell phone bans has shown mixed results on their effectiveness. This could be due to variations in the types of laws and how effectiveness is measured. Drivers who text while driving may also take other risks that contribute to crashes, such as ignore speed limits, according to a 2018 research report published in the Academic Journal of Pediatrics & Neonatology.

Nonetheless, adolescents are particularly vulnerable to negative outcomes related to cell phone use while driving.  Broader countermeasures that prevent distracted driving, such as high visibility enforcement (HVE) and public health education programs, or that lessen the consequences of distracted driving, such as crash avoidance technology, are needed and may be more effective than distracted driving laws.

Access a state by state chart of distracted driving laws from the Governors Highway Safety Association here.

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