Last updated: March 19, 2017
Cell phone, texting updates: : Several distracted driving measures filed for 2017 address the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal’s ruling that the state’s texting & driving law extends to use of a cell phone’s GPS functions. Reps. Charlene Lima and Brian Patrick Kennedy filed separate bills exempting the use of GPS and similar navigation devices from the texting law. Kennedy’s plan also specifies that phone calls are not covered under the distracted driving ban.
The tribunal appeals panel considered the case of a driver who maintained he was using GPS, not texting, and should not have been ticketed. The panel said in late August 2016 that “a reader may be looking at any visual display on the phone’s interface and be in violation of the statute.” The driver need not be typing or sending or receiving a text, the panel said.
The House and Senate both are considering reruns of legislation that seeks to bar use of handheld communications devices such as smartphones while driving. Sponsors are state Rep. Kathleen Fogarty and Sen. Susan Sosnowski.
- Text messaging outlawed for all drivers on Rhode Island roads. Law is being interpreted as also barring holding of a cell phone and viewing its displays.
- Drivers under the age of 18 prohibited from using cell phones.
- School bus operators prohibited from using cell phones while driving.
Fines: $100 (first offense), then $150 and then $250. Possible license suspension for serial offenses.
Read Rhode Island’s texting & driving statute.
Distracted driving legislation (2017)
House Bill 5182: Would bar use of handheld communications devices while driving. Holding a device to the ear would constitute a violation. Fine: $100, waived if first-time violator shows proof of handheld accessory purchase. See HB 7168 of 2016, below. Held for “further study” on March 8. (Forgarty)
H 5150: Would permit use of GPS and other mapping devices under texting & driving law. (Response to Traffic Tribunal ruling.) Also permits voice communication and use of hands-free or voice-activated in-dash systems. Held for “further study” on March 8. (Kennedy)
H 5152: Would exempt GPS and other navigation systems from texting & driving prohibitions. Also entry of phone numbers. (Response to Traffic Tribunal ruling.) Held for “further study” on March 8. (Lima)
Senate Bill 175: Would prohibit use of handheld communications devices to make phone calls while driving. Fine: Up to $100. Fine can be waived with proof of purchase of hands-free device. Would take effect June 2018. See S 2255 of 2016, below. (Sosnowski)
Distracted driving notes (2017):
Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy was moved to file his H 5150 upon hearing of a ticket issued for use of a GPS device. “We are getting to the point where you are just going sit in the car and not do anything the entire time, including talk on the phone,” Kennedy said.
2016 distracted driving notes:
The state Traffic Tribunal’s ruling in the case of a driver who maintained he was unfairly ticketed for using the GPS on his cell phone cited “the plain language of the statute.” “A reader may be looking at any visual display on the phone’s interface and be in violation of the statute,” the tribunal wrote. “To (rule) otherwise would defeat the purpose of the statute: to prevent drivers from distractions caused by operation of a cell phone while driving.”
State Rep. Charlene Lima said the tribunal “overstepped its bounds” and plans to file legislation that would restrict the state law to texting & driving. A courts spokesman said there was “no ambiguity” in the distracted driving law, however.
The Senate signed off on state Sen. Susan Sosnowski’s 2016 legislation that would have prohibited use of handheld communications devices by drivers, but the measure failed to achieve traction in the House, which tabled its own version in late January. The fine would have been a maximum $100.
Sosnowski convinced the Senate that Rhode Island needs a handheld cell phone ban. “There are already so many dangers and distractions on the road,” the senator said during debate March 9. “The least we can do is work to minimize those potential threats.” Her plan included amnesty for first-time violators who purchase hands-free accessories. Sosnowski has been trying for a decade to get a cell phone law approved. The bill was approved in the Senate on March 9, but died in the House Judiciary Committee.
2016 distracted driving legislation
S 2255: Would prohibit use of handheld communications devices by drivers. Fine: Up to $100. Fine can be waived with proof of purchase of hands-free device. Would take effect June 1, 2017. Approved by Judiciary Committee on Feb. 25. Approved by the full Senate in a 35-2 vote of March 9. To the House. (Sosnowski)
Senate Bill 2232: Would outlaw use of handheld wireless communications devices such as cell phones by all drivers. Fines: $100 (first offense), then $250, then $500. Held for “further study” on March 9, see above. (Ciccone)
House Bill 7168: Would require hands-free accessories for drivers using wireless communications devices. Fine can be waived with proof of purchase of hands-free device. Held for “further study” on Jan. 26. (Fogarty)
Note: The Rhode Island General Assembly’s web site does not accommodate direct access to the status of current bills. Access status of legislation using this search form.
2015 distracted driving legislation
Senate Bill 267: Would bar drivers from using handheld wireless communications devices. Fine: Up to $100. Fine can be waived with proof of purchase of hands-free device. Would take effect June 1, 2017. Approved in a 37-0 vote March 10 by the Judiciary Committee. Approved by the full Senate on March 19. Died in House Judiciary Committee. (Sosnowski)
2015 distracted driving notes:
Texting & driving citations were down significantly in 2015, State Police report. As of November, only 380 tickets were written for the distracted driving offense. Only three of those were repeat offenders and State Police say they’re hoping the dropoff in ticketing reflects a fall in texting behind the wheel.
State Sen. Susan Sosnowski returned in 2015 with legislation that would prohibit use of handheld communications devices by drivers. Senate Bill 267 was approved by the Senate on March 19 and sent to the House, where it sat in committee for the rest of the year. The fine would be a maximum $100. Her plan includes amnesty for first-time violators who prove that they purchased hands-free accessories. It would not take effect until 2017.
Sosnowski’s hoped 2015 wasn’t going to be a rerun of 2014, when her cell phone legislation was approved by the Senate but failed to advance in the House. “If this bill looks familiar to you … then it should,” Sosnowski jokingly told the Senate Judiciary Committee before its 2015 vote. Later, she said, “At long last, this bill has made it to the Senate floor.”
Sosnowski told the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 10: “The only way we’re really going to stop texting while driving is if you can’t hold anything — any type of communication device — while driving.” The AAA and the attorney general support her bill.
Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, New Shoreham, previously said of her bill: “Many of us have grown accustomed to using mobile devices in almost every aspect of our lives, including in our cars and trucks. This is especially true for our younger population, who grew up with this kind of technology embedded in their daily lives. It’s important not to forget that every time we step into a vehicle, we are taking our lives and the lives of others into our own hands.”
2014 distracted driving legislation
Senate Bill 2678: Seeks to increase fines for distracted driving to $100/$150/$250. Includes use of cell phones by minor drivers and texting by all drivers. Previous fines $85/$100/$125. Approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 29. Approved by the Senate on May 14. Approved by the House on June 16. Signed into law by governor June 23. (Paiva Weed)
S 2092: Would bar drivers from using handheld wireless communications devices. Fine: $100. Fine can be waived with proof of hands-free device. Also prohibits “any activity” that interferes with safe operation of vehicle. Approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 15. Approved by the Senate on June 5. Died in the House. (Sosnowski)
House Bill 7152: Would prohibit student use of cell phones on school buses. Fine: $50. School bus drivers currently barred from using cell phones. Exception for emergency use. “Held for further study.” (Corvese)
H 7761: Seeks increased fines for distracted driving. Identical to S 2678. Approved by the House on June 10. Approved by the Senate on June 16. Signed into law by governor June 23. (Ruggiero)
Note: Access status of legislation using this search form.
2014 distracted driving notes:
The Senate has approved a plan to hike fines for texting & driving, as well as for violations of the cell phone law for minor drivers. First convictions would be $100 under the plan from Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, which advanced to the House in mid-May but did not become law.
Weed said part of the idea was to back law enforcement: “It is very hard for the police to enforce these laws.” At least four distracted driving bills were under consideration for 2014.
2013 distracted driving legislation
S 546 SUB-A: Seeks to add license suspensions to current penalties for text messaging while driving. For first offense, license suspension up to 30 days in addition to existing $85 fine. For second conviction, suspension of up to three months. For subsequent convictions, up to six months. Approved by Senate on June 21 and by the House on June 28. Signed by the governor July 15. (Sosnowski/attorney general)
H 5675: Same as S 546, above. Approved by Judiciary on April 2. Approved by House on April 9. Senate passed in concurrence July 2. Signed by the governor July 15. (Serpa/attorney general)
House Bill 5655: Requires the state driver’s education program to cover the dangers of distracted driving, specifically cell phone use, to be followed up with questions on the driver’s license exam. Approved by the House on April 11 and by the Senate on May 28. Signed by the governor June 3. (McNamara)
Senate Bill 660: Same as H 5655, above. Approved by the Senate on April 25 and by the House on May 28. Signed by the governor June 3. (McCaffrey)
S 218: Would hike fines for text messaging while driving to $500 for the first offense, then $1,000 (second offense), then $1,500. Held “for further study” by Senate Judiciary Committee. (Sosnowski)
S 220: Would ban use of handheld mobile phones while driving. Includes general distracted driving provision. Fine: $100, which can be waived if a first-time violator shows proof of a subsequent hands-free device purchase. Held “for further study” by Senate Judiciary Committee. (Sosnowski)
S 417: Would make texting & driving evidence of reckless disregard in crashes resulting in a death. Penalties up to 10 years in prison and license suspension up to five years. Held “for further study” by Senate Judiciary Committee. (O’Neill)
H 5569: Would rewrite current texting law to add mandatory requirement that violators have texting and cell phone blocking device placed in vehicle. People convicted of texting and driving cannot operate any vehicle without blocking device, and if caught do so would lose license for one year (first offense), then two years. Held “for further study” by House Judiciary Committee. (Lima)
H 5101: Would bar drivers from allowing dogs to sit in their laps. Fines: $85 (first offense), then $100, then $125. Held “for further study” by House Judiciary Committee. (Paulumbo)
2013 distracted driving notes:
The House and Senate pushed through twin plans to add license suspensions to penalties for violating Rhode Island’s electronic distracted driving laws. The bills were signed by the governor July 15.
The new law brings 30-day license suspensions for offenders, who already face $85 fines. The suspensions increase to three months (second offense) and six months (third and subsequent convictions), along with the existing higher fines for repeat offenders. The Traffic Tribunal would have the option of applying either or both penalties.
The bills were brought before the Legislature on behalf of state Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, a sponsor of distracted driving legislation during his term in the House. “This act will give the courts the discretion to impose stricter penalties on those who continue to text while driving, risking their own life as well as the lives of others on our roads,” Kilmartin said.
State Sen. Susan Sosnowski, sponsor of S 546, said: “The possible addition of a license suspension is a much more appropriate repercussion for such a dangerous practice.”
The governor already has signed into law twin bills requiring distracted driving education and testing in the driver’s license application process. Final legislative sign-off on the bills came May 28 and the governor gave his OK on June 3.
The other distracted driving bills submitted to the Judiciary Committees in both houses of the General Assembly have been held for further study, meaning they are unlikely to advance during the 2013 session. Many were refilings of measures rejected in 2012.
State Rep. Joseph M. McNamara said of his successful driver’s exam bill: “Our new drivers need to be aware of all the dangers that come with calling, texting or just not paying attention while driving.” His legislation, H 5655, and the Senate companion, S 660, were sent to the governor for final approval May 29.
In addition to the successful license suspension bill, State Sen. Susan Sosnowski refiled her plan for a ban on handheld cell phone use while driving. Rhode Island already outlaws texting & driving. Sosnowski also proposed a steep increase in fines for texting & driving, with first offenses up to $500.
Sosnowski said a handheld cell phone ban would help police enforce the texting ban, since holding wireless communications devices would be outlawed. “I think if municipal police and other groups really got behind this, it would be very easy to get this bill passed into law,” Sosnowski told the Westerly Sun in early April.
Sosnowski says she’s resorted to driving a larger car because of bad driving caused by drivers using their wireless communications devices. “People are all over the road. It’s epidemic, and I think it’s one of the more crucial safety issues,” said Sosnowski, D-District 37.
An unusual bill resubmitted to the House in 2013 would mandate that drivers caught using text messaging install a blocking device that prevents cell phone calls and texting.
2012 distracted driving legislation
HB 7110: Right to privacy legislation that would require search warrants for police who want to view possibly incriminating information on personal electronic devices. Judiciary Committee recommended the bill be held “for further study” on March 13. Approved by the House on April 26. Approved by the Judiciary Committee on June 7. Full Senate concurred with House and OK’d bill June 13. Latest legislative action: Bill transmitted to governor June 18. (Ajello)
Senate Bill 2223: Would ban use of handheld mobile phones while driving. Includes general distracted driving provision. Fine: $100, which can be waived if a first-time violator shows proof of a subsequent hands-free device purchase. (Sosnowski)
SB 2416: Would establish a legal presumption of negligence if a driver is involved in a crash while using a cell phone. Driver using cell phone will be presumed to be the cause of the accident. Applies to civil litigation. (Cote, Sosnowski)
HB 7204: Would rewrite current texting law to add mandatory requirement that violators have texting and cell phone blocking device placed in vehicle. People convicted of texting and driving cannot operate any vehicle without blocking device, and if caught do so would lose license for one year (first offense), then two years. Judiciary Committee recommended the bill be held “for further study” on Feb. 28 (see 2011’s HB 5870, below). (Lima, McNamara)
HB 7926: Would prohibit dogs from sitting in the lap of someone driving a motor vehicle. (Palumbo)
2011 distracted driving legislation
Senate Bill 242: Would outlaw use of handheld cell phones by all drivers in Rhode Island. Fine: maximum of $100. A first offender can have fine suspended by showing proof of purchase of a hands-free device for the cell phone. Judiciary Committee recommended the bill be held “for further study” on May 5. (Sosnowski)
SB 346: Would prohibit drivers under the age of 21 from using handheld cell phones to talk or text message while vehicle is in motion. Fine: up to $100. First offenders’ fines suspended provided they prove they bought a hands-free accessory for the mobile phone. Approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a unanimous vote on June 14. (Lombardo)
HB 5870: Would prohibit the use of “wireless handsets” while driving in Rhode Island. Upon conviction, violators must install a device blocking cell phone calls and text messaging in their vehicle. Fine $85 (first offense) then $100 and then $125. Drivers ordered to block their wireless devices but do not are subject to one-year and then two-year license suspensions. Judiciary Committee recommended the bill be held “for further study” on April 4. (Lima)
HB 7103: Would prohibit motor vehicle drivers and bicyclists from using cell phones unless a hands-free accessory is employed. Ear phones and headsets cannot cover both ears. Fines of $35 to $140. (Kilmartin)
HB 7117: Would create a general inattentive-driving law that comes into play when driver has committed a moving violation. $50 fine in addition to any other fines. (Kilmartin)
HB 7031: Would prohibit use of handheld mobile phones on Rhode Island roads and highways. Use of cell phones OK if a hands-free attachment is employed. $100 fine for first-time violator who shows proof of purchase of a hands-free attachment. (Giannini)
HB 5021 and SB 204 (Substitute A): Bans sending, reading or writing a text messaging while driving a motor vehicle. Approved by the Rhode Island Senate on April 7. (SB 204 was filed as a handheld cell phone ban.) Approved by the House on Oct. 29 and sent to the governor. Signed into law by the governor on Nov. 10, 2009, and effective immediately.
HB 5022 seeks to ban drivers from cell phoning unless a hands-free device is utilized. Also targets text messaging.
HB 5242 would change the existing law against driving or bicycling while wearing earphones or headphones to add a ban against handheld cell phones.
HB 5198 would bar minors from text messaging while driving.
HB 5604: Seeks to ban text messaging while driving on Rhode Island roads.
SB 8: Would outlaw texting while driving. Held in committee. (See SB 204 above)
Rep. Peter Kilmartin, D-Pawtucket, and Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, pushed through the General Assembly the ban on text messaging while driving on Rhode Island roads. It brings a $85 fine for the first offense, $100 for the second and $125 for the third. The DOT ran an ad campaign alerting drivers to the Rhode Island texting and driving law.
Kilmartin said after House approval of the texting ban on Oct. 29: “The bill we passed addresses the most egregious form of distracted driving, but I still believe we should pass hands-free cell phone legislation and I will continue that fight next year.”
Debate on the texting ban included criticisms that the bill did not go far enough and ban cell phone use by drivers. “I realize this is a 10-year effort, and if we can get the most egregious offense out of the way at this time I’m happy doing this,” Kilmartin said.
In 2001, the General Assembly passed Kilmartin’s bill banning handheld cell phones. The Rhode Island governor vetoed the legislation, which would have created one of the nation’s earliest cell phoning while driving laws. Kilmartin, a former policeman, was almost hit by a driver using a handheld electronic device a decade ago.
Sen. Sosnowski sponsored the Senate cell phone and text messaging bills. Under the texting legislation, approved by the Senate on April 7, fines scale from $50 to $75 to $100.
After her texting legislation cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee — but not her handheld cell phone ban — Sosnowski said: “I think it’s a good start. … Texting is just so dangerous, and we have to tell people this is not acceptable, especially our young drivers.”