State Legislative Action
With some minor exceptions, states have jurisdiction to regulate driving behavior on their roads, and most laws regarding distracted driving are debated and enacted at the state level. State laws targeting distracted driving vary in several ways, including the behaviors that are prohibited, the drivers to whom the law applies, where the prohibition applies and how the law is enforced.
Distracted driving laws can apply to all drivers or only to certain drivers, such as school bus drivers and young or novice drivers. They can also apply to all roads or be limited to specific areas such as school and work zones. Many of these bans provide various exemptions, including use for emergencies and by law enforcement and first responders. Distracted driving laws are either primary or secondary enforcement laws. Primary enforcement laws can be enforced without any other offense taking place. Secondary enforcement laws can be enforced only if the driver also committed a primary violation at the same time.
New York in 2001 was the first state to establish a ban on using hand-held phones while driving. Since then, legislatures have actively debated, enacted and refined distracted driving laws. Between 2018 and 2020, the number of states that enacted hand-held bans increased from 16 to 24. While hand-held bans implicitly include texting, laws in 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers.
In addition to hand-held or texting bans, 37 states plus the District of Columbia have laws banning all mobile device use for novice drivers or drivers under a certain age—generally 18, but some states set the maximum age at 19 or 21. At least 19 states and the District of Columbia have laws that prohibit any cellphone use for school bus drivers. NCSL’s chart on distracted driving laws provides a detailed overview of current laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Fines for hand-held and texting bans range, on average, between $50 and $275, with some states imposing higher monetary penalties, especially for subsequent violations. Other penalties include point assessments or loss of driver’s license, temporary disqualification from receiving a commercial driver’s license and auto insurance surcharges.
In 2019, five states—Arizona (HB 2318), Maine (SB 52), Massachusetts (HB 4203), Minnesota (HB 50) and Tennessee (HB 164)—enacted hand-held bans for all drivers. Arizona’s new law is noteworthy because, in contrast to the bans enacted by the four other states and several existing bans, it does not require activation or deactivation by a single tap or swipe. Additionally, Arizona (HB 2318) and Florida (HB 107) changed their texting ban for all drivers from secondary to primary enforcement law.
Despite shortened or disrupted legislative sessions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, distracted driving laws were high on several legislature’s agendas this year. So far in 2020, at least nine states have enacted 12 distracted driving bills. Three states—Idaho (HB 614), Indiana (HB 1070) and Virginia (SB 160/HB 874)—enacted hand-held bans for all drivers. South Dakota (HB 1169) strengthened its distracted driving law to prohibit hand-held use in most situations, but drivers can still hold the phone to their ear while on a call. The new law also allows reading, selecting or entering a telephone number when making or receiving a call without requiring a limited number of touches or that it be made using voice command. It explicitly allows the use of a GPS or navigation system but prohibits manually entering information into those systems while driving. Additionally, the law defines “social media networking site” and specifically bans drivers from accessing, reading or posting on social media. The state also upgraded its texting ban from a secondary enforcement law to a primary enforcement law.
Hand-held bans achieved advanced status in two additional states. A hand-held ban in Utah (HB 101) passed the House and was tentatively approved by the Senate until funding could be secured for the increased court costs the bill would create. It eventually failed. Colorado’s hands-free bill (SB 65) passed the Senate but was not considered by the House. Pending legislation in Ohio would impose a hand-held ban if enacted.
In a noteworthy enactment this year, Vermont (SB 339) significantly enhanced penalties for violating some of its distracted driving laws. The state established a civil penalty of $200 to $400 for the first violation of its hand-held and texting bans in a school or work zone. The penalty is $500 to $1,000 for subsequent violations in any two-year period. Previously, violating the hand-held ban carried only a one-point assessment against the offender’s driver’s license, and the prohibition to text in a designated school or work zone did not carry enhanced penalties.
Hand-Held and Texting Bans
States primarily use hand-held and texting bans to combat distracted driving. Hand-held bans are laws that 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. California’s law (Vehicle Code § 23123.5), for example, provides that “[a] person shall not drive a motor vehicle while holding and operating a handheld wireless telephone or an electronic wireless communications device unless the wireless telephone or electronic wireless communications device is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation, and it is used in that manner while driving.” A growing number of states also include an explicit prohibition to access, view or read non-navigation related content. Some states have laws banning all mobile device use for certain drivers.
Texting bans prohibit drivers from typing or sending text messages while driving but allow talking on a hand-held mobile device. Oklahoma’s texting ban provides that it is unlawful for a driver to use “a hand-held electronic communication device to manually compose, send or read an electronic text message while the motor vehicle is in motion… ‘Text message’ includes a text-based message, instant message, electronic message, photo, video or electronic mail.”