Distracted driving is a problem that has become widespread in the United States. Distracted driving occurs when an individual is paying attention to something else or engaging in an activity that causes them to divert their attention from driving.

The Department of Motor Vehicles provides that distracted driving kills around 9 individuals every day in the United States. Teen drivers are, on average, four times more likely to be involved in an automobile accident while talking or texting on a cell phone than adults.

In addition, around 60% of automobile accidents involving teenagers are caused by distracting driving, including text messaging while driving. Ways that drivers can be distracted include, but are not limited to:

  • Talking on a cell phone while driving;
  • Texting while driving;
  • Reaching for a phone;
  • Changing the radio station;
  • Checking the GPS;
  • Taking a photo or selfie;
  • Checking email;
  • Talking to a passenger;
  • Applying make-up; and
    Eating and/or drinking.

Any task or activity which makes a driver look away from the road and not pay attention to their surroundings is considered an activity which can create distracted driving.

What are the Distracted Driving Laws?

The laws governing traffic vary by state. However, the majority of states have enacted distracting driving laws.

There are many new laws which prohibit driving while utilizing a cell phone or driving while texting. There are some states that prohibit other forms of distracted driving, such as shaving or applying make-up while driving.

Other states have enacted broader statutes which define distracted driving as engaging in an activity while operating a vehicle which is not necessary to operating that vehicle and impairs, or reasonably would be expected to impair a driver’s ability to safely drive.

What are Some Cell Phone Laws?

Because cell phone usage has become so prevalent, numerous states have enacted laws which govern the use of cell phones while driving. In some states, drivers may use their phones so long as they are hands-free, such as with a speaker or bluetooth.

Some states prohibit all cell phone use, even with a hands-free device by certain categories of drivers, such as drivers that are under the age of 18. There are many states which have laws that prohibit texting while driving.

These laws usually also prohibit the use of other devices which may significantly distract a driver, which may include:

  • Emailing;
  • Web browsing;
  • Smartphone apps;
  • Cell phone games; and
  • Other activities.

What is Texting While Driving?

Texting while driving includes doing any of the following with a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle:

  • Reading a message;
  • Viewing a message;
  • Writing a message; or
  • Sending a message.

Texting while driving is a traffic violation which may be categorized as a criminal misdemeanor in some jurisdictions. Studies have demonstrated that texting while driving increases an individual’s risk of having an accident by anywhere from 2.8 to 23.2 times more than normal.

The laws governing texting and driving are aimed at deterring these behaviors.

What Are the Laws on Texting While Driving?

Texting while driving laws vary by state and jurisdiction. There are currently 44 states as well as territories including Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the United States Virgin Islands that ban text messaging for all drivers.

There are 4 states which prohibit text messaging by new drivers and teenage drivers. Three states prohibit bus drivers from text messaging.

Arizona and Montana do not have any restrictions on texting while driving. Some states have more lenient texting and driving laws, including:

  • Mississippi: The ban only applies to individuals with either a learner’s permit or an intermediate license;
  • Missouri: The ban only applies to drivers 21 years or younger;
  • Oklahoma: The ban applies to individuals with a:
    • learner’s permit;
    • intermediate license;
    • school bus driver, and
    • public transit driver;
  • Texas: The ban applies to:
    • bus drivers if driving passengers 17 years old and younger;
    • intermediate license holders during their first 12 months of having the license; and
    • drivers in school crossing zones.

What is Teen Texting?

Teen texting refers to drivers who are under the age of 20 who are operating motor vehicles while viewing, reading, or typing text messages on mobile devices. It is important to note that as of March 2018, there are 38 states which ban any cell phone use by a teen or novice driver.

Does Federal Law Prohibit Teen Texting?

No, federal laws do not prohibit texting while driving, including texting while driving by teenagers. Currently, there are 47 states which have totally banned texting while driving and only two states which prohibit texting by novice drivers.

Who is Considered to be a Novice Driver?

A novice driver typically refers to a driver who is under 21 years of age who has a learner’s permit or a driver’s license. There are some states that refer to a driver under the age of 18 as a novice driver.

In other states, a novice driver classification refers to any driver who has a provisional license or a learner’s permit. Novice drivers also include individuals who have had a license for less than 6 months.

This means that an elderly driver or even an individual who is over 30 or 40 years of age who is newly licensed may be considered a novice driver until such time as they have possessed their license for more than 6 months.

How are Teen Laws Against Driving and Texting Enforced?

Violations of teen driving and texting laws are either primary or secondary laws, depending upon the state. A primary law means that a law enforcement officer is permitted to stop a driver for that particular offense.

A secondary law means that the law enforcement officer cannot pull over a driver for that offense but they are permitted to pull the driver over for a different offense. For example, in a state where teen texting is a secondary offense, if a law enforcement officer observes a teen texting while driving, that driver must commit another offense, such as running a stop sign, in order to be pulled over.

What is the Punishment for Teen Texting and Driving?

The punishment for teen texting while driving varies by jurisdiction and state. The typical penalties for teen texting while driving may include:

  • Fines, up to $10,000 in Alaska;
  • Driver’s license point penalties;
  • Driver’s license suspension, for example, in Ohio, a driver under the age of 18 may face a $150 fine and a six month driver’s license suspension;
  • Jail time; and
  • A combination of jail time and fines, for example, in Utah, a fine of $750 and possible jail time.

It is important to note that jail time may be a possible punishment for a teenage driver who has multiple texting while driving offenses. If a driver injures another individual because they were texting while driving, or if they were driving under the influence and texting, incarceration is a likely punishment.

Should I Discuss Teen Texting and Driving Consequences with an Attorney?

If you are facing a texting and driving charge, whether you are a teen, new driver, or experienced driver, it may be helpful to consult with a traffic violation attorney. In many cases, a novice teen driver may face stiffer penalties than adults in the same situation.

Your attorney can advise you regarding the texting and driving laws in your state, advise you of your rights, and represent you when you have to appear in court. It is important to consult with your attorney as soon as possible so they have sufficient time to prepare your case.