State Initiatives

According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 5,474 people were killed in 2009 in crashes involving distracted drivers, and an estimated 448,000 were injured. That same year, 16% of fatal crashes and 20% of injury crashes involved distracted driving.

Texting is a significant distraction while driving. According to Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), the crash risk increases by a factor of 23 when texting, as compared to driving while not distracted. VTTI also states that “sending or receiving a text takes a driver's eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent-at 55 mph-of driving the length of an entire football field, blind.”

While most people claim to realize that text messaging is not safe while driving. However, many do not understand the dangers of talking on a cell phone while driving. A study at the University of Utah compared driving while conversing on a hands-free cell phone and driving while conversing on a handheld cell phone to driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08. Therefore, it was concluded, that using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk.

Individual states, as well as the federal government are beginning to enact bans and driving regulations in an attempt to prevent distracted driving. Under the federal “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (Public Law 109-59; SAFETEA-LU), states are required to have a Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP), a statewide program for reducing highway fatalities and serious injuries on public roads. A report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) states that 27 states, Washington, D.C. and Guam added distracted driving to their SHSPs.

According to the GHSA report, 17 states had laws in 2003 requiring the collection of information on distraction as a factor in crashes. That number is now 43 states and Washington, D.C. collecting information on distraction as a factor in crashes. Clearly concern is growing about the rise of distracted driving and the correlating rise in injury and fatality crashes.

States are placing a heavy emphasis on reaching teen drivers with information regarding distracted drivers. 23 states are focusing distracted driving materials on teen drivers. There are three primary reasons for this:

First, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers. For each mile driven, drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 are involved in fatal crashes four times more than drivers aged 25 to 69. The GHSA report refers to 2009 NHTSA data analysis indicating that “16 percent of all drivers under 20 in fatal crashes were reported distracted.” Quite often, that distraction was cell phone use.

The NHTSA found that teenagers use cell phones more than all other age groups combined, according to the GHSA report. Second, research over the years has shown that the combination of inexperience at driving and immaturity increases teens’ susceptibility to distraction. Thirdly, according to the GHSA report, a recent survey of teen drivers found them seriously overconfident about their vulnerability to distraction and seriously under-informed about the risks of distraction.

One way some states are informing teens is by making information about distracted driving a part of driver educational materials. At least 18 states have made distracted driving a component of driver education, and 17 states have added a question on distracted driving to the driver’s license test.

Teens, of course, are not the only drivers who risk distraction. States are reaching out to inform drivers of all ages about the risks of distracted driving, including public/private partnerships with corporations to get the word out to employees.

Where public information fails, state laws step in. Most states have distracted driving laws. Of those with laws on the books, all address texting. Most also address cell phone use in various forms. The following is a state-by-state analysis of state laws and bans regarding cell phone use and distracted driving.

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