Talking on a cell phone or texting while driving has become commonplace, but states are cracking down. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), at any given time, more than ten million drivers in the United States are using cell phones. In response to safety concerns, some states, municipalities, and foreign countries have banned certain types of cell phone use while driving -- such as handheld cell phone use, use of wireless phones by novice or juvenile drivers, or texting. Even if your state does not restrict a driver's use of cell phones, you should take precautions if using a wireless phone while driving. Read on to learn more.
Cell Phones and Driving: The Debate Over Safety
Driver inattention is a primary or contributing factor in 25% of all accidents, but are cell phones a distraction? Some studies have found that the act of dialing or answering cell phones distracts drivers and contributes to increased accident rates. Others have found that the actual act of conversing is the main culprit, especially if the conversations are emotionally charged. Still others allege that driving while yakking is no more distracting than other common activities conducted in the car, like talking to passengers, eating, or changing the radio station. (See California Court Okays Surfing the Net While Driving.)
What about hands-free devices? Researchers have found that using a hands-free device is not necessarily safer than using a handheld phone. Many drivers spend more time fiddling with the earpieces or headphones of their hands-free device than they would dialing a handheld cell phone, and volume problems with hands-free phones have been cited as creating distractions for the driver.
Some believe that devices such as Bluetooth and similar products in which cell phone calls are transmitted through the car's built-in microphone may be the safest way to go. However, if the mere act of having a conversation (rather than holding a phone to your ear) is the most dangerous distraction, then these devices may not be any safer than a handheld phone.
Laws Banning Cell Phone Use While Driving
The debate over the safety of driving while yakking has spurred some countries, states, and even local municipalities to ban certain types of cell phone use while driving. Here's the rundown of those laws.
A number of states have outlawed handheld cell phone use while driving, or have banned cell phone use for certain types of drivers. Most make an exception for emergency calls to police, the fire department, medical personnel, and the like.
Handheld phones. Seven states have enacted laws banning the use of handheld cell phones while driving: California, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington (as well as Washington D.C. and the Virgin Islands). With the exception of Maryland, all of these states allow "primary enforcement of an offense." That means that police officers can pull you over for using a handheld cell phone without any other reason for the traffic stop.
Novice or juvenile drivers. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted special cell phone driving laws for novice drivers (for example, those with a learner's permit) or young drivers (such as those under the age of 18). For example, in California, drivers under the age of 18 cannot use any type of communication device while driving. In most of these states, the laws allow for primary enforcement. (For more information on the laws in each of state, visit the Governors Highway Safety Association website, at www.ghsa.org, and click on "State Laws.")
School bus drivers. Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have banned school bus drivers from using cell phones while passengers are present. (For a full list, visit the Governors Highway Safety Association website, at www.ghsa.org, and click on "State Laws.")
Texting. Twenty-nine states, Washington D.C., and Guam have banned text messaging for all drivers. In most of these states, you can be pulled over and cited for texting as a primary offense.
Distracted driving. Several additional states -- such as Maine, New Hampshire, and Utah -- don't specifically ban cell phone use, but instead lump it into a larger ban on distracted driving.
Some towns and cities have banned certain types of cell phone use while driving. In response, a number of states have enacted laws that prohibit local jurisdictions from implementing cell phone ordinances. (For a full list, visit the Governors Highway Safety Association website, at www.ghsa.org, and click on "State Laws.")
Bans in Foreign Countries
The list of foreign countries that have some sort of cell phone ban for drivers is a long one. Most of these ban handheld cell phones, not hands-free devices. (To learn which countries have banned cell phone use while driving, visit the Cellular News website, at www.cellular-news.com/car_bans.)
Safety Tips for Cell Phone Use While Driving
Whether your state imposes driving restrictions on cell phone use or not, experts agree that all drivers should take precautions when using cell phones. Here are some suggestions for making cell phone use safer in your car:
- When possible, make calls when your car is not moving.
- Don't make calls in heavy traffic or bad weather.
- Program frequently called numbers into your phone's memory. The less dialing, the better.
- Keep your phone within easy reach.
- Never take notes, write messages, or look up phone numbers while driving. If you must do any of these things, pull over.
- When pulling over to make calls or take notes, avoid dangerous areas and lock car doors.
- If possible, ask a passenger to make or take a call for you.
- Keep conversations short and don't discuss emotional topics.
- If you must dial while driving, hold the phone at eye level so you can see the road.
To learn more about traffic tickets, and other laws that affect everyday life, get Nolo's Encyclopedia of Everyday Law: Answers to Your Most Frequently Asked Legal Questions , edited by Shae Irving (Nolo).