Distracted driving FAQ

Women engaged in distracted driving with cell phoneSome of the most frequently asked questions about distracted driving, cell phones and driving, and text messaging while behind the wheel:

What is distracted driving?
Distracted driving occurs when the operator of a vehicle finds his or her attention diverted from the roadway. The distraction can be as simple as changing a radio station, looking at a passenger or petting an animal. Or as complicated as interacting with a social media web site. The first distracted driving debate of note occurred when AM radios were first installed in vehicles.

What is electronic distracted driving?
Most recent laws restricting distracted driving focus on the use of wireless communications devices. The targeted behavior can be more specifically called electronic distracted driving. Behaviors include text messaging, emailing, engaging in cell phone calls, interacting with social media web sites and using handheld devices as GPS receivers.

Why is using my cell phone while driving legal in one state and illegal in another?
There is no national law covering distracted driving for the public. Almost all traffic regulation is left to individual states. The U.S. government seeks to influence state traffic laws via the awarding or withholding of highway funding. This was the case with seat belts and the 21-year-old drinking age.

Interstate truck drivers and many other commercial drivers are prohibited from texting and using handheld cell phones under a recent U.S. Department of Transportation regulation, however. The federal government has oversight of interstate commerce.

What are “handheld” cell phones?
Almost all mobile phones are designed to be held by hand, of course. When a cell phone user employs a hands-free attachment such as a Bluetooth headset, the device is no longer considered a handheld cell phone in terms of distracted driving laws.

Which states ban cell phone use by all drivers?
None. A growing number outlaw handheld cell phone use, meaning the holding of the device. Some bar the use of cell phones by novice drivers.

Which states ban texting while driving?
Almost all of them.

Can a policeman stop me for using a cell phone if I’m driving legally?
In states with “secondary enforcement,” they can’t. In states with “primary enforcement,” they can.

What is primary enforcement?
In terms of distracted driving, it means a law officer can stop and cite an offender for that reason alone.

What is secondary enforcement?
In terms of distracted driving, it means a law officer must witness another infraction — such as running a stop light or weaving — before he or she can stop and cite an offender.

Are secondary enforcement laws useless?
Not necessarily. Most people obey the law because it’s the law. And adoption of a distracted driving law creates a great deal of awareness of the problem. Also, tickets almost always can be issued when a distracted driving causes a wreck. Lawmakers who introduce distracted driving bills with secondary limitations sometimes say they did so with the intent of seeking an upgrade in future years.

Can I text at a stop light?
Depends on your state or city. Generally, no — or the local law is ambiguous on that point. No state prohibits lawfully pulling a vehicle to the side of the road, turning off the engine and texting from there. In New York, some freeway rest stops have been dubbed “texting zones.”

Can I get a texting ticket while dialing a phone number?
It happens. Police have no way of knowing what you’re doing with your cell phone, especially while vehicles are moving. In many states, showing evidence that you were made a call at the time the ticket was written is a legitimate defense. This assumes that holding a phone and dialing a number is allowed in your state.

Can I get a ticket for changing the music on my smartphone?
Depends on your state law’s wording. Adjusting music would be an offense in states that outlaw “using” or “holding” handheld cell phones (smartphones), such as Hawaii.

Can I get a ticket for using the maps feature on my smartphone?
Maybe. It’s one of the major gray areas. Comes down to the wording of your state’s distracted driving law. If the ban is on holding or “using” the wireless device, interacting with maps should result in a ticket.

Can I get a ticket for using my dashboard GPS?
A few states have banned the entry of data into GPS units while driving. All allow reading of mounted GPS units.

Can I get a ticket if I pass through a city with a cell phone ban if I have no way of knowing the law exists?
Absolutely. In some states, such as South Carolina and Illinois, a driver making a road trip can pass in and out of multiple cities with different distracted driving laws. Some states allow local distracted driving laws, some don’t.

Why do so many distracted driving laws have loopholes and ambiguities?
Electronic distracted driving laws are fairly new, most written in the new century. Still, they can become quickly outdated. In some states, cell phone laws were written before text messaging became widespread. In some cases, the lawmakers failed to understand the technologies they were seeking to regulate. Many states are amending and fine tuning their distracted driving laws for the better.

Why does my state single out teenage drivers? We’re better at using these devices than most adults.
1) Novice drivers need to devote full attention to the task of operating a vehicle. 2) Young drivers are more likely to text message, considered the most dangerous of distracted driving behaviors. 3) Most young drivers can’t vote.

Do distracted driving laws work?
Certainly, but no one knows to what extent. Here’s one dynamic among many: The growth in wireless technology has been explosive in this century. A state may ban texting & driving but still see texting crashes increase. But that increase could have been much worse without the state’s ban on texting. There are so many factors, it’ll take a generation to sort out the effectiveness of these laws, some safety experts say.

Is handheld cell phone use really more dangerous than hands-free cell phone use?
Jury’s still out, but evidence continues to mount that the distraction comes in the cognitive demands of being engaged in a call. Fumbling with a hands-free attachment instead of a familiar cell phone can be a distraction in itself.

So why not ban all cell phone use by drivers?
One of the most frequently used arguments against cell phone regulation on the road has been government intrusion into citizen’s lives — “personal freedoms.” State legislatures simply wouldn’t agree to total cell phone bans, even though the idea has gained a bit of traction in recent years. Simply put, American drivers are not willing to give up their cell phones.

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