Texting, Cellphones, and Distracted Driving Laws

States laws that prohibit drivers from texting, using cellphones, and doing other distracting activities while operating a vehicle.

In an effort to keep the roads safe and to prevent collisions, most states have laws prohibiting drivers from doing things while operating a vehicle that could distract from safe driving. While distracted driving isn't anything new, the popularity of cellular phones and other electronic devices has led state legislatures to enact laws that specifically deal with cellphone and electronic device use while driving. This article will outline some of the most common features of distracted driving laws, including what actions are prohibited and what penalties can result from a violation.

Definitions of Distracted Driving and the Three Main Categories of Restrictions

With all driving laws, it's important to remember that each state has its own specific laws. In other words, to be sure you're not breaking the law, you need to familiarize yourself with the laws that apply in your state. However, many states have distracted driving laws that generally fall into one of three main categories: general restrictions, texting prohibitions, and cellphone restrictions.

General Distracted Driving Definitions

Many states have distracted driving laws that generally prohibit any activity while operating a vehicle that prevents safe operation. Although these general laws can apply to the use of cellphones and other electronic devices, they also prohibit other distracting activities while operating a vehicle. Depending on the circumstances, a driver could get a distracted driving ticket under these general laws for doing things like putting on makeup or reading the newspaper while driving.

Texting While Driving

Nearly every state prohibits text messaging while driving. Texting-while-driving laws generally apply to text communications on all wireless communication devices including cellphones, laptops, and PDAs (person digital assistant devices). And it's not just regular text messages that are prohibited—these laws generally make it illegal to engage in all forms of written electronic communication, including text messages, emails, and instant messages.

Cellphone Use Restrictions

Cellphone rules that apply to all drivers. In many states, cellphone use (using a cellphone for a call) is permitted only with hands-free technology. For example, Nevada prohibits any action that requires manual interaction with a wireless device, including texting, emailing, video chat or voice communication. But, generally, drivers can use wireless communication devices with a hands-free accessory that enables communication without actually touching the phone or other device. And many state laws permit drivers to use their hands for the limited purpose of activating hands-free technology. For example, pushing a button on a Bluetooth earbud or on the car's sync display is usually permitted.

Underage cellphone use rules. The legislatures in many states appear to be particularly concerned about new motorists engaging in distracted driving. To address these concerns, many states prohibit novice or young drivers from using any sort of electronic device while driving. Generally, any driver who is under 18 years old or currently has a learner's permit is prohibited from using a wireless communication device altogether. In other words, underage drivers can't use cellphone and electronic devices even if using hands-free technologies.

Distracted Driving Restriction Exceptions

As cellphones can be very helpful in emergency situations, state laws generally contain a list of distracted driving restriction exceptions. Typically, these exceptions are for reporting a collision or other emergencies. Also, distracted driving prohibitions generally don't apply to emergency personnel using electronic devices in the course of their official duties.

Distracted Driving Ticket Penalties

Generally, distracted driving is a "primary" traffic violation, meaning an officer can stop a driver just for distracted driving. In contrast, officers can cite a driver for a "secondary" violation (seat belt tickets are often in this category) only if there's some other reason, such as speeding, for the traffic stop.

Fines. The fine amounts for distracted driving tickets depend on the state and circumstances of the violation. In most states, distracted driving carries a fine in the range of $25 to $250. It's common for fine amounts to increase with each subsequent violation. For example, a distracted driving fine might be $50 for a first offense, $100 for a second offense, and $200 for a third offense. Also, a distracted driving violation in a school or road work zone can result in increased (often doubled) fines and additional penalties.

Demerit points. Many states have license demerit systems that track the number of traffic violations a driver has with violation points. The accumulation of too many points can result in license suspension. Depending on what state you live in, a distracted driving ticket could result in the DMV assigning demerit points to your driving record.

Graduated license penalties. For drivers holding a learner's permit or provisional license, a distracted driving violation can carry additional penalties. In most states, novice drivers must be free of any traffic violations for three to 12 months before obtaining an unrestricted driver's license. So unlawful cellphone use will often delay the license advancement process for new drivers.