The NCSL Blog

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By Ann Kitch

You glare at your GPS hoping to find a traffic free route home while digging through your bag for a snack to fight afternoon hunger. You are driving distracted, a common behavior that can be fatal.  

graphic on udrive utext ypayWe know that texting is a particularly dangerous distraction. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), when a driver reads or sends a text message, their eyes are off the road for five seconds.

When someone is driving at 55 mph, that results in traveling the length of a football field without looking at the road.

There were 3,157 fatal crashes on American roadways in 2016 that involved distraction (9 percent of all fatal crashes) according to NHTSA.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness month, a campaign that aims to recognize the dangers of distracted driving and encourage citizens, law enforcement and lawmakers to explore methods to eliminate this dangerous habit.  

State legislatures along with a multitude of safety organizations are uniting under this campaign to learn more about the strategies to collect traffic safety data and effectively enforce distracted driving laws.  

The two most common legislative approaches to deal with distracted driving are bans on texting and hand-held phone use. 

Fifteen states prohibit drivers of all ages from using hand-held cell phones while driving and 38 states and the District of Columbia ban cell phone use by novice or teen drivers.

Forty-seven states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging by all drivers. Texas’ 2017 legislation created a statewide ban on texting while driving for all drivers, making it the 47th state with such a ban

Some states have increased the fine for distracted driving offenses recently. Colorado increased the penalty for texting while driving in 2017 from $50 to $300, making it a class 2 misdemeanor traffic offense. The Arkansas legislature refined the state’s existing texting ban language to include wireless interactive communication such as emailing or social media use. The penalty for this offense is increased to fine of up to $250 for a first violation and a fine of up to $500 for subsequent violations.

The California legislature banned held-hand use while driving in 2016, and clarified that a driver may only use a device if it is mounted on the windshield, dashboard or center console and is operated by a single swipe or tap, addressing, for example, GPS. California’s toughened law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2017.  Notably, the state’s Office of Traffic Safety released a report analyzing the use of hand-held mobile devices while driving in the state since the advent of this refined law.

The study found the rate of hand-held usage while driving dropped from 7.6 percent of drivers in 2016 to 3.58 percent of drivers in 2017 . In contrast, Zendrive’s distracted driving report  finds that in 2018 distracted driving increased in every state except Vermont. These large variations in distracted driving data outline the blurred understanding of the cause of distracted driving behavior and how it is changing over time.

There are significant challenges to enforce cell phone use and texting bans. Drivers can disguise their mobile use by holding their mobile device where it cannot be detected by law enforcement. Privacy laws make it difficult for law enforcement to access phone records to discern whether a crash involved mobile device use. The gap in available data and access to evidence results in underreported instances of distracted driving. This lack of data on crashes, citations and convictions stymies the development of a data-driven roadmap to guide further policy and enforcement methods.

To address enforcement obstacles, states are using strategies that include high visibility enforcement campaigns, photo enforcement or enforcement from higher-profile vehicles that look down into passing vehicles, such as buses or commercial trucks.

A study from NHTSA released in March 2017 evaluated the enforceability of texting laws, looking at strategies tested in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Law enforcement agencies used a variety of enforcement strategies, including spotter, stationary and roving patrols. The study concludes that strong distracted driving laws enhance enforcement, allowing officers to utilize various laws for enforcement if a law, such as a particular texting statute, doesn’t address a particular behavior.

Considering legislators in 44 states debated over 230 driver-distraction bills in 2017, you can rest assured states are eager to gather more evidence-based research to inform policy and enforcement recommendations to reduce distracted driving.   

Ann Kitch is a transportation research analyst in NCSL’s Transportation Program.
Email Ann.

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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.