Laws on Distracted Driving

Recent statistics show that distracted driving has become a widespread, deadly problem in the United States. With support from the Federal Government, state governments have instituted distracted driving laws that impose steep penalties on those who are caught using their cell phone while driving and other distracting behaviors.

In 2012, the US Department of Transportation approved a $17.5 million grant program to aid states who have enacted and enforced anti-distracted driving laws, which shows how serious this problem has become. Because many states have different laws, it is important to understand the regulations regarding distracted driving in your state.

Cell Phone Use

Use of cell phones while driving, whether it be talking, texting, or using hands-free devices, has been one of the main focuses of state governments in creating laws for safer roads. Currently, 46 states, as well as DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands ban texting while driving, and in the four states that do not have this ban, two prohibit texting for newly licensed drivers and one for bus drivers.

Fourteen states, as well as the territories listed above, ban the use of handheld phones for all drivers, though no states yet have banned the use of cell phones while driving altogether.

Some states also ban hands-free cell phone devices such as Bluetooth in certain circumstances, such as for novice drivers and/or bus drivers (see Arizona and California for examples).

Studies have shown that using hands-free devices does not eliminate the dangers of distracted driving and may in fact not reduce the risk at all when compared to handheld cell phones. It is possible that more restrictions on hands-free devices may appear in future state legislation due to this new information.

Novice Drivers

In anti-distracted driving laws, many states choose to specifically address the problem of young drivers by putting additional restrictions on what are known as “novice drivers,” which are defined by state law. Typically, these drivers are those who have just recently obtained their license and are between the ages of 16-18 years old, depending on the state.

For example, Arkansas bans all cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) for novice drivers, which is defined by state law as any driver under the age of 18. Though these “novice driver” laws are common, some states do not have this specification.

Primary vs. Secondary Laws

The distinction between primary and secondary laws in terms of distracted driving violations is important to understand. If a rule is designated as a primary law, an officer can specifically pull over and ticket a driver for that offense without any other traffic violation occurring. If the rule is a secondary law, the officer can only ticket a driver if he or she has committed another traffic violation, such as speeding.

For example, the State of Iowa has a primary law that bans all cell phone use for novice drivers, but also has a secondary law that bans texting for drivers of all ages.

This means an officer can arrest and ticket a novice driver using a cell phone without any other traffic violation, but for drivers of all other ages, a person must commit another traffic violation before being ticketed for distracted driving.

More Information

For more detailed information on a state-by-state basis regarding distracted driving laws, visit one of the following: