The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf

If we could only get these teenagers to quit talking on their cellphones while they're behind the wheel, we could make our roads a lot safer.

From left, Jacob Nelson, AAA; Mark McCullough, San Diego Police Department; and Massachusetts Representative Carolyn C. Dykema (D).True enough, as far as it goes, but it might surprise that teenagers aren't the worst offenders when it comes to using their cellphones while driving. That honor goes to the 20- to 29-year olds, according to the American Automobile Association.

And the worst distractions are not the conversations teenage drivers have on their phones, but the ones they have with their peer passengers.

A few years back, AAA took a hard look at distracted driving and was lobbying for anti-texting and complete bans on hand-held devices, Jake Nelson, AAA's director of traffic safety advocacy and research told an NCSL Capitol Forum session on distracted driving.

"What we realized that getting phones out of our hands was going to be next to impossible," he said. "We chose to look at what's coming down the pike, turning the dashboard into a smartphone."

After examining several technologies, he said, "none of the systems truly allowed the driver to keep their hands on the wheel or eyes on the road. Some navigation systems you can do while driving and it can take several minutes (to input a destination).

"We have to focus on more behavioral things. It's going to be decades before we have fully autonomous vehicles on the road to see some of the safety benefits." 

California has a strict hands-free cell phone law but allows phones to be mounted on the dashboard. Drivers are restricted to either tapping or swiping their phones.

"You can't dial or look up a phone number," said San Diego police officer Mark McCullough. "If it's not verbal, it's hands-off." 

San Diego has used plainclothes officers to stand on corners and spot drivers who are talking or texting on a hand-held devices. The officer notes the make and license plate of the car and another officer around the corner pulls them over.

Still, McCullough says, officers see a variety of driving distractions that have nothing to do with phones, 

"I happen to live in one of the most visually distracting places," said McCullough. "I've seen people changing clothes in their car on the way to the beach and there's no law against that."

Time was when an officer could ask for a driver's cellphone and document whether they were talking or texting.

"Now we need a warrant and you're not going to do that on a simple collision," said McCullough.

While conversations with the driver may be dangerous, especially among peers and when a driver turns his/her head to look at the passenger, an in-vehicle conversation tends to moderate according to driving conditions in a way that a cell phone conversation doesn't, Nelson said.

"It's a tough one for us," he said. "Most data is related to interacting with a cellphone but only about 1 percent of crashes involving death had something to do with a phone.

"Our challenge is legislators want data and it's not there."

McCullough said he believes graduated driver's licensing and classes conducted by police officers in schools are making a dent in the prevalence of distracted driving, "but they (young drivers) still talk to passengers and they still eat.

"We've taught our kids it's OK to multitask while they drive. We put it in the parent's lap. It's up to you to set the example both for distracted driving and DUI."

Mark Wolf is the editor of the NCSL Blog.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.