A growing number of states across the country are enacting laws to prohibit the hand-held use of cell phones while driving. These laws follow increased efforts nationwide to reduce accidents and fatalities caused by distracted driving.
Idaho, Indiana, South Dakota, and Virginia are among the most recent states to institute hands-free laws for all motorists, with state legislatures passing the new laws in early July 2020. These four states join 22 other states and the District of Columbia that already have similar bans in place.
New Hands-Free Laws by State
Hands-free laws are aimed at stopping drivers from holding or using a cellphone while they are operating a vehicle, with common exceptions for when devices are being used for navigation, through hands-free technology such as Bluetooth, or in the event of an emergency. Yet like most laws, the exact details of these new bans vary by state.
In Idaho, law enforcement will be issuing warnings until December 31st as they continue to inform and educate motorists of the new law. Citations for breaking the ban will be issued starting January 1, 2021, and requires that cell phones only be used in a hands-free mode. A drivers’ first offense of the law is punishable by a $75 fine and a second offense constitutes a $150 fine. A third and any subsequent offenses within three years warrant a $300 fine and may be grounds for a 90-day license suspension.
The new law in Indiana states that motorists who are caught violating the cell phone ban constitute as a Class C infraction and a primary offense, meaning that law enforcement can pull over drivers solely for using their phones. Drivers can be fined up to $500 and receive points on their license if they were found to have their phone in hand at any point while operating a vehicle, regardless if they were actively using it or not. Exceptions to the ban include if the phone is being used through hands-free technology or to contact 911 in an emergency situation.
Similarly, South Dakota’s hands free law will make using a cellphone while driving a primary offense and it will constitute a Class 2 misdemeanor. The state ban follows similar exceptions of phones being used for navigation, for emergency purposes, or to dial a phone number. Drivers who wish to make calls on their phone are required to do so through hands-free technology or hold the phone up to their ear.
Virginia will begin enforcing the new ban starting January 1, 2021 and it will be considered a primary offense. The only exception to the ban is in the event of emergency circumstances. Drivers who are found to be violating the law will receive a $125 fine on their first offense and $250 for any second and subsequent offenses.
Additional states may soon be joining this movement of restricting cell phone usage while driving, with Ohio, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina having hands-free bills currently pending in their state legislatures.
Distracted Driving by the Numbers
State enforcement officers have long struggled with enforcing distracted driving measures, as they have historically been secondary traffic violations. As a secondary offense, it means that the rule can only be enforced if a primary offense has also occurred. As a result, many distracted driving instances involving cell phone usage are unable to be enforced.
In 2018, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that distracted driving resulted in 2,841 fatalities. Of those killed, 1,730 were drivers, 605 were passengers, 400 were pedestrians, and 77 were bicyclists. Such bans are aimed at reducing these statistics and ensuring that drivers’ attention stays on driving and not their devices.
Technology has created a dangerous environment for everyone behind the wheel, as cell phones not only distract drivers visually, but also manually and cognitively. It is estimated that cell phones are involved in 27% of all car accidents and the number of cell-phone related crashes is expected to continue to rise, as reported by the National Safety Council. Although these statistics are already alarmingly high, it is believed that cell phone usage while driving is under reported and that it happens more frequently than estimated.
Risks of Texting and Driving
While any non-driving activity that motorists engage in pose as potential distractions, texting has been found to be the most alarming distraction. Drivers who text while behind the wheel are eight times more likely to cause a collision, while people who are calling while driving, whether it be using handheld or hand free devices, are four times as likely to crash.
According to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, 48 states and the District of Columbia have bans on texting and driving, while Missouri and Montana are the only two states that do not.
Distracted Driving Higher Among Teenagers
The problem of distracted driving is even more so prominent among young and inexperienced drivers, as they represent an un proportionally high percentage of accidents involving cell phones.
A survey done by the NHTSA found that young drivers, ages 18 to 20, have the highest incidence of car accidents compared to all other age groups, and are two times more likely to be involved in a collision. Additionally, within this same age group, 20% of respondents stated that texting does not impact their capability to drive in any way and are 24 times more likely to text while behind the wheel.
Effectiveness of Hands-Free Laws
As more states institute heightened efforts such as hands-free laws to reduce incidents of distracted driving, research is continuously being done to evaluate the effectiveness of these measures.
When observing the impact of cell phone laws on car accidents, evidence has suggested that laws aimed at reducing cell phone usage while driving have a positive impact on crash statistics over the long-term. Additionally, drivers in states that have bans on hand-held phone conversations have reported a decrease in overall phone use while driving, when compared to states without such bans.
The age group that has benefited the most from cell phone bans is those between the age of 18 and 34. A study conducted by the Journal of Public Health Policy reported that cell phone bans have significantly reduced fatal crash rates for drivers within this cohort.
While the increased measures enacted to restrict cell phone usage are predicted to reduce fatal crashes in the long-term, advocates believe that there is still more work to be done in order to improve the safety for everyone both on and off the roads