Distracted driving laws are in place to help manage distractions in the car, a major crash risk for newly licensed teen drivers and for all drivers. Crashes involving a distracted driver resulted in 3,142 fatalities and an estimated 324,652 people injured in 2020 alone: 7% of drivers ages 15-20 involved in fatal crashes in 2020 were distracted, the largest proportion of any age group.
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia researchers found that being distracted by something inside or outside the vehicle is one of three "critical errors" that account for nearly half of serious crashes involving teens behind the wheel.
Strong distracted driving laws are now on the books. Currently, 34 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, the northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have instituted a handheld cell phone ban for all drivers, and all but Alabama and Missouri are primary enforcement laws (police may issue a driver for using a handheld cell phone without any other traffic offense taking place). In 25 states and in Washington DC, all cell phone use for school bus drivers is prohibited. No state bans all cell phone use for all drivers, but 36 states and Washington DC ban all cell phone use for novice drivers.
Some towns and cities have additional regulations beyond their state’s distracted driving laws. However, preemption laws are in place in some states to prohibit local jurisdictions from enacting their own distracted driving bans. These states include Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Carolina.
Texting While Driving Laws
In 2007, Washington was the first state to pass a texting while driving ban. Currently, texting while driving is banned in 49 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, the northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands, and all but six have primary enforcement laws (police may issue a driver for texting while driving without any other traffic offense taking place).
All states except Connecticut and New Hampshire include at least one category for distraction on police crash report forms, although the specific data collected varies. The Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria (MMUCC) guidelines provide best practices on distraction data collection.
GDL Laws on Distracted Driving
Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) provisions also include restrictions to help prevent distracted driving for newly licensed teens and research shows most teens do comply with GDL:
- Cell phone use by novice drivers is banned in 36 states and the District of Columbia.
- 47 states and the District of Columbia have passenger limits in place during the intermediate license period.
Research on Cell Phone Bans
A study published in Pediatrics found that in states with primary enforced texting bans, fewer fatal motor vehicle crashes involving 16- to 19-year-old drivers occurred. The study, which analyzed 2007-2017 data from the US Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), also found lower incidence of fatal crashes for this age group in states with all-driver handheld device use bans. These results are encouraging since previous research examining the association between cell phone bans and lower rates of fatal crashes in teen drivers showed mixed results.
This could be due to variations in the types of laws and how effectiveness is measured. Those who text while driving may also exhibit other risky behaviors that contribute to crashes, such as ignore speed limits, according to a 2018 research report published in the Academic Journal of Pediatrics & Neonatology.
A 2022 study, conducted by researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, examined crash rates in three states that adopted broad prohibitions against holding or using a cell phone or similar electronic device while driving on a public road. Rather than look specifically at crashes attributed to distracted driving, which tends to be underreported in police records, the researchers studied the laws' effect on police-reported rear-end crashes. They found that monthly crash rates per 100,000 people dropped substantially in Oregon and Washington after broadening their laws in 2017, but California did not achieve the same gains.
These mixed results suggest that broader cell phone laws may work, but the specific wording of the laws and others factors, such as the severity of penalties associated with the laws, seem to make a difference. More research is needed to determine the combination of wording and penalties that are most effective.
Preventing Distracted Driving
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to negative outcomes related to cell phone use while driving. Broader countermeasures that prevent distracted driving, such as high visibility enforcement (HVE) and public health education programs, or that lessen the consequences of distracted driving, such as crash avoidance technology, are needed.
Access a state by state chart of distracted driving laws from the Governors Highway Safety Association here.
Currently, texting while driving is banned in 49 U.S. states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands. All but 6 have primary enforcement.