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There is an abundance of research that confirms the dangers of distracted driving. Nevertheless, drivers have largely ignored the overwhelming data. Studies show that drivers overestimate their own ability to safely multitask, even as they worry about the dangers of others doing it.
Distracted driving is more than just using technology when driving. It represents a range of activities that impact a driver’s visual, auditory, physical or cognitive abilities. Still, technology has had an impact.
Over the past 10 years or so, development of electronic devices that have the potential for driver distraction have grown significantly. Cell phone usage behind the wheel, in particular, has increased exponentially. Meanwhile, texting and using onboard satellite communication devices have become a standard practice for many drivers.
A recent Harvard study found that 570,000 accidents leading to minor and serious injuries are caused each year by cell phone distractions. Research has also determined that driving while using a cell phone reduces a driver’s response time. Drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers. The likelihood that they will crash is equal to that of someone with a 0.08 percent blood alcohol level — the point at which drivers are generally considered intoxicated.
Furthermore, a growing body of evidence suggests that drivers who simply involve themselves in a conversation suffer debilitating distractions. Complicated business discussions and emotionally-involved conversations reduce driver reaction times and steal away attention.
Hands-free cell phone devices and speaker phone accessories don’t eliminate the risks. In some cases they may even worsen the risks by suggesting that the behavior is safe. Safety professionals recommend that cell phone calls and texting be done while the vehicle is stationary, not while driving. The primary concern, they stress, needs to be the safe operation of the vehicle.
Let callers leave a message in voicemail, or if there are passengers in the vehicle, let one of them take or make the call. If a driver has to make or receive a call, the driver should look for a safe opportunity to pull over and park before doing so.
If there is no alternative but to use a phone while driving, safety experts advise getting familiar with the cell phone’s features, especially speed dial and redial. Use a hands-free device. Suspend conversations during hazardous driving conditions. Do not take notes or look up phone numbers while driving. Assess the traffic when dialing. Stay in the righthand lane, where driving may be less demanding. Place calls when your vehicle isn’t moving. And when on the phone, do not engage in stressful or emotional conversations. Keep calls short and to the point.
State cell phone restrictions
Hand-held cell phones: Calif., Conn., Md., N.J., N.Y., Ore. and Washington, D.C., along with the Virgin Islands, prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. Except for Maryland, all laws are primary enforcement — an officer may cite a driver for using a hand-held cell phone without any other traffic offense taking place.
All cell phone use: No state bans all cell phone use (both hand-held and hands-free) for all drivers, but many prohibit all cell phone use by certain drivers:
- Novice drivers: Twenty-eight states and Washington, D.C. ban all cell phone use by novice drivers.
- School bus drivers: Eighteen states and Washington, D.C. ban cell phone use by bus drivers when passengers are present.
Text messaging: Twenty-eight states, Washington, D.C. and Guam ban text messaging for all drivers. Twenty-four states, Washington, D.C. and Guam have primary enforcement; the other four, texting bans are secondary.
- Novice drivers: An additional nine states prohibit text messaging by novice drivers.
- School bus drivers: Two states restrict school bus drivers from texting while driving.
Some states, such as Maine, N.H. and Utah, treat cell phone use and texting as part of a larger distracted driving issue. In Utah, cell phone use is an offense only if a driver is also committing some other moving violation (other than speeding).
Crash data collection: Many states include a category for cell phone/electronic equipment distraction on police accident report forms. Recently proposed federal legislation would require states to collect this data in order to qualify for certain federal funding.
Pre-emption laws: Many localities have passed their own distracted driving bans. However, some (for example, Fla., Ky., La., Miss., Nev. and Okla.) prohibit localities from enacting such laws.
Click here for a special web-only comprehensive state by state list of cell phone and texting laws.