Distracted Driving: Cell Phone and Texting Laws

Traffic citations for using a cellphone, text messaging, electronic device use, and other distracting activities while driving.

Most states have laws that restrict drivers from using a cellphone, sending and reading text messages, and using certain electronic devices while operating a vehicle. Some states also have general distracted driving laws that prohibit motorists from doing anything that’s particularly distracting while operating a vehicle. Here are some of the more common features of distracted driving laws and the penalties you might face if you’re convicted of a violation.

What Distracted Driving Laws Prohibit or Restrict

Most states have distracted driving laws. And while the laws of each state are a little different, the general trend of distracted driving laws over time has been to become stricter. In other words, as distracted driving has become more widespread, states have responded by imposing more comprehensive restrictions.

Texting and Cellphone Restrictions

Many states—including Nevada, Maryland, Hawaii, and Georgia—now prohibit drivers from texting messaging or using a handheld cellphone while operating a vehicle. Generally, these restrictions apply while the driver’s vehicle is actually in motion or temporarily stopped in traffic, at a stoplight or stop sign, and the like.

Electronic Device Use Prohibitions

Recognizing that people use all kinds of electronics that aren’t necessarily mobile phones, many states have banned all handheld electronic device use while driving. These types of bans generally apply to any type of electronic device that one could use in a vehicle such as laptops, tablets, and texting devices.

General Distracted Driving Laws

A few states—like Wisconsin and Connecticut—have general distracted driving laws that prohibit doing any task while operating a vehicle that prevents the motorist from driving safely. Activities like personal grooming, eating, and reading a magazine are typically prohibited under these more general laws.

Restrictions That Apply to Only Certain Drivers

The prohibitions of distracted driving laws sometimes differ for certain drivers. For example, in some states—like California and New Hampshire—adult drivers can use cellphones with hands-free technology but underage drivers are completely prohibited from cellphone use. Some states—like Tennessee and Michigan—also have more restrictive laws for school bus and commercial drivers.

Penalties for Distracted Driving Violations

Generally, distracted driving is a traffic infraction rather than a criminal offense. Convicted motorists typically face fines and possibly demerit points on their driving record. Distracted driving fines differ by state but normally increase if the driver has recent prior distracted driving violations.

In some states, distracted driving laws that lead to injuries or the death of another person are misdemeanors or felonies. A driver who’s convicted of one of these more serious distracted driving charges faces expensive fines and the possibility of spending time in jail. For example, in Illinois, distracted driving violations that result in serious injury to or the death of another person are class A misdemeanors and carry up to a year in jail and a maximum of $2,500 in fines.

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