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Text You Later: Keeping Drivers’ Eyes on the Road

To help make roadways safer, lawmakers are toughening handheld and texting bans to make cellphone use while driving a primary offense.

By Annie Kitch  |  October 3, 2023

Distracted driving claimed 3,500 lives and injured more than 362,000 people in the United States in 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. However, due to challenges in collecting and reporting data on driver distraction, the current figures probably undercount the true extent of such crashes and related fatalities.

The NHTSA defines distracted driving as “any activity that diverts attention from driving,” including talking or texting on the phone, eating, drinking or even fiddling with knobs on the dashboard.

States primarily use handheld and texting bans to combat distracted driving. Texting bans prohibit drivers from typing or sending text messages while driving but allow talking on a handheld mobile device. Handheld bans allow the use of mobile devices only while driving in hands-free mode—usually through voice communication or by activating with a single tap or swipe.

Many of these bans allow for exemptions, including use for emergencies and by law enforcement and first responders. Several states have laws banning the use of all mobile devices by novice drivers or drivers under a certain age, usually 18.

Research on the effectiveness of cellphone and texting laws remains mixed, and evaluations of the laws are hampered by barriers to getting accurate driver data. Most studies reveal that handheld bans have been somewhat effective in reducing cellphone use while driving, but the evidence does not necessarily point to a reduction in crashes. NCSL’s resource Traffic Safety Review: States Focus on Distracted Driving includes details on these findings.

Collecting Data With AI

Novel approaches, including the use of telematics, could address the data collection challenges. Telematics can record and transmit details of vehicle usage and driver behavior via a device installed in a vehicle.

Cambridge Mobile Telematics, a Massachusetts-based provider of telematics services, examined distracted driving among 34 million drivers in eight states—Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia—that have enacted handheld bans since 2018. The company’s AI software detected that these states saw an average decrease of 13% in phone motion—when a phone is rotating with the screen on while a vehicle is moving—within the first three months of the bans going into effect.

Between 2019 and 2023, the number of states enacting handheld bans rose to 27 from 18. While the bans implicitly include texting, laws in 49 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers.

The most recent handheld bans were enacted in Alabama, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio, whose law offers notable exceptions.

“This legislation is designed to make our roads safer for every driver and passenger in Michigan and provide law enforcement with the tools they need to crack down on this dangerous behavior,” Rep. Matt Koleszar, the bill’s sponsor, told the Oakland Post.

While Ohio’s law prohibits handheld phone use, it allows drivers to swipe their phones to answer calls and hold them to their ears during a conversation or use their phones while stopped at a red light. Bans in the other states include more common exceptions, such as allowing phone use when reporting an emergency or when a vehicle is lawfully stopped.

Alabama and Missouri’s handheld bans are secondary offenses, meaning that police officers can stop or ticket a driver for use of a wireless device only if they have committed another traffic violation.

Although Alabama’s law is not as stringent as those in primary-enforcement states, lawmakers are optimistic about its potential to enhance roadway safety. “Maybe it’ll help save some lives, and cut out some of this distracted driving,” Sen. Jabo Waggoner, the bill’s sponsor, told WSAF 12 News.

An analysis of phone motion distraction following the enactment of handheld bans in Alabama, Michigan and Ohio found that distraction dropped by 12% in Michigan and over 8% in Ohio in the 30 days after the laws went into effect. Phone motion distraction dropped 2.4% in Alabama one month after the ban was enacted; however, by the third month, distraction was 1.6% higher than before the law.

Annie Kitch is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Transportation Program.

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