Distracted Driving Laws: Texting and Cell Phones

State distracted driving laws that restrict cellphone use and texting while operating a vehicle.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

As cell phone use, text messaging, and portable electronics use has become more a part of everyday life, the hazards posed by distracted driving have become a greater concern. In response, most states and many local governments have passed laws that ban or at least restrict cell phone and electronic device use while operating a vehicle.

Cell Phone and Texting Restrictions

A number of states have outlawed handheld cellphone use while driving or have banned cellphone use for certain types of drivers. Most make an exception for emergency calls to police, the fire department, medical personnel, and the like.

Talking on a Cell Phone While Driving

Generally, restrictions related to talking on the phone while driving follow into two main categories: prohibitions on handheld cell phone use and complete bans on cell phone use.

States With Hands-Free Driving Laws

Many states—including California, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington—have laws that prohibit the use of handheld cell phones while driving. And many states allow "primary enforcement" of a cell phone offense—meaning police officers can pull you over for using a handheld cellphone without any other reason for the traffic stop.

These hands-free cell phone restrictions typically allow drivers to use a cellphone with hands-free technologies. For example, most newer cars have built-in, voice-operated speakerphone features that allow drivers to receive and make calls without having to take their hands off the wheel.

Complete Bans on Cell Phone Use While Driving

Many states prohibit certain drivers from using a cell phone—regardless of whether used with hands-free technology—altogether. Typically, these types of strict rules apply only to younger drivers who don't yet have a full unrestricted license.

Texting While Driving

Almost all states—including some without cell phone bans—prohibit text messaging while driving. In most of these states, you can be pulled over and cited for texting as a primary offense.

As with cell phone restrictions, some state laws provide exceptions for drivers using technologies for texting that are entirely voice-operated.

Using GPS While Driving

The laws of many states prohibit most electronic device use while driving. But a number of states have specific exceptions for GPS units.

The details of these exceptions vary by state. For example, California law allows drivers to use hands-free GPS units that are mounted in the vehicle as long as the driver only has to use one tap or swipe to turn the unit on and off.

General Distracted Driving Laws

A number of states also have catch-all distracted driving laws that apply to any activity—including cell phone and electronic device use—that could substantially interfere with the motorist's ability to drive safely.

Under these more general laws, drivers can be cited for activities such as putting on makeup, reading the newspaper, and the like.

Special Texting and Cellphone Restrictions

More restrictive laws for younger drivers. The majority of states 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). These laws typically prohibit these underage drivers from all cell phone or electronic device use while operating a vehicle—including devices that are equipped with hands-free technology. In most of these states, the laws allow for primary enforcement. Underage drivers might also face more severe penalties, such as license suspension, for a distracted driving violation.

School bus drivers. Many states have banned school bus drivers from using cell phones while passengers are present. Some of these laws apply to all device use—regardless of whether in hands-free mode. However, the bus driver restrictions typically contain exceptions for dispatch communications and the like. Depending on the state, school bus drivers who violate distracted driving laws may face the loss of their school-bus certification and criminal penalties that could include jail time.

Commercial drivers. Commercial drivers are subject to state and federal regulations. Under federal law, distracted driving violations are generally considered "serious violations." Having multiple serious violations within a three-year period will result in commercial license revocation.

Local Bans on Texting and Talking on the Phone

Some towns and cities have banned certain types of cell phone and electronic device use while driving. These laws are typically more strict than the distracted driving laws of the state. In response, some state legislatures have enacted laws that prohibit local jurisdictions from implementing cellphone ordinances.

Criminal Charges Related to Distracted Driving

Depending on the circumstances, a distracted driving violation could additionally lead to reckless driving charges. And if a distracted driving violation results in the death of another person, vehicular homicide charges are a possibility.

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