The new year has come and with it another push toward making U.S. roads safe from distracted drivers. As mobile technology has evolved, so has state legislation as the issue has gone beyond texting while driving. Each year, more states are cracking down on distracted drivers with new laws imposing broader restrictions and higher penalties.
Get to know what’s changing, how you can reduce distractions while you drive, and how to legally protect yourself if you get into a distraction-related accident with the following tips and facts.
Evolving state laws
Legislation is typically slow to accommodate ever-evolving technology and the legal and safety concerns it raises. However, state legislation is typically quicker to evolve than federal legislation in the U.S. This is especially evident with recent changes in state laws and noticeable trends from the past decade, which has seen a rapid boom in technological innovation.
Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown approved Assembly Bill No. 1785, which went into effect on January 1, 2017. The new law effectively bans all drivers from using handheld devices while driving, including phones and GPS trackers.
The law is primarily enforced, meaning that a law enforcement officer may stop and ticket you if they see you handling a device while driving or stopped at an intersection or crosswalk. The first offense can land you a $20 fine, while subsequent offenses increase to $50 fines. These fines are in addition to any other penalties you incur.
California isn’t the first state to go hands-free, though. So far, 13 states and Washington, D.C. have banned handheld device use for all drivers—and all with primary enforcement—including:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New York
- West Virginia
While other states may not ban handheld devices yet, they do ban texting while driving. Only four states do not ban texting while driving for all drivers:
- Montana (which has no distracted driving laws at all)
Teens are most at risk
Distracted teen drivers are still a major concern on U.S. roads. In 2013, teen drivers (age 15–19) made up 11% of all cell phone-related distracted driving fatalities in the U.S. In 2014, that number rose to 13%.
If you were to compare the proportion of distracted driving fatalities versus the total number of driving fatalities per year among different age groups, teen drivers make up the largest proportion in distraction fatalities. In 2014, 10% of all teenage driver fatalities were distracted and 19% were using a cell phone at the time of the accident. In response:
- 41 states and Washington D.C. specifically ban all cell phone use (both handheld and hands-free) by teen drivers with either primary or secondary enforcement.
- Most of the other states without specific cell phone bans for teen drivers have a general handheld or hands-free device ban for all drivers, regardless of age.
- Missouri only bans texting while driving for teen drivers.
- Both Arizona and Montana do not ban any device use for teen drivers.
Take necessary precautions to avoid temptation
One of the best ways to keep your device out of your hands—especially when driving in a hands-free state—is to mount it to your vehicle’s windshield or dashboard. Nearly half of all states allow windshield-mounted devices, though some of those states restrict where you can mount your device on your windshield.
Many states don’t have laws restricting dashboard-mounted devices so this is probably the best option to stay safe and legal. Most device mounts use suction cups for windshields but also come with an adhesive plastic disk you can attach to your dashboard for the mount.
Check with your local laws before mounting a device in your vehicle for any restrictions. A good rule of thumb is to mount your device so it obscures as little of your view out of your windshield as possible.
Additionally, you can and should learn to use your phone’s voice-activated assistants. Apple, Android, and Windows devices have Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana, respectively: digital assistants that can perform a variety of tasks with simple voice commands.
Voice-activated assistants are designed for a hands-free experience with your device. They are especially useful in states with handheld device bans for drivers. If you need to place or answer a call, text someone, make a note, or navigate to a location, simply say the appropriate voice command and your device does the rest.
Lastly, if you can’t resist the distraction, eliminate it entirely while you drive. Put your device in your vehicle’s trunk or somewhere you can’t reach while driving. A phone call or text isn’t worth the few dangerous seconds of distraction. However, if you need access to your device for an emergency, turn it off completely and turn it back on only for the emergency.
Distraction may seem like a small issue that you can safely manage while driving, but consider this: the number of drivers age 25–69 seen visibly manipulating handheld devices increased from 1.6% in 2013 to 2% in 2014. For younger drivers age 16–24, the jump was more significant with 2.9% in 2013 to 4.8% in 2014.
So in addition to putting your device away or turning it off, be cautious and drive defensively around other distracted drivers.
Protect your legal rights in an accident
If you find yourself in a distraction-related vehicular accident, you’ll want to take special precautions toward protecting your rights:
First, treat the accident like if it was any other. Observe safety while pulling over to the side of the road, inquire about the other driver and any passengers’ health, alert the proper authorities if medical assistance is required, and trade driver information.
Most importantly, stay calm, be compliant, and don’t incriminate yourself. Don’t admit fault, even if you were at fault. Fault can be determined later. Do whatever an officer asks you to do and don’t physically resist them.
The quickest way for an officer to determine if you were distracted by your device is if they confiscate and search its apps, GPS history, or phone/text records. An officer may ask to see your phone or GPS tracker. However, an officer cannot easily do this without special permissions.
An officer can only search your phone if you consent to a search, if they obtain a warrant, or under exigent circumstances. One exigent circumstance is if the information on your device may be important evidence in an emergency situation where an officer cannot wait to get a warrant, such as if a suspect is escaping. Another exigent circumstance is if the officer suspects that you may try to destroy evidence on your device.
While the content on your device is subject to your Fourth Amendment right to privacy, this doesn’t mean that you are automatically protected from an officer trying to search your device. If an officer does this without your consent and without a warrant, any evidence they find on it may be inadmissible in court.
Consult an attorney
Distracted driving is often tricky to prove in court. Having credible witnesses and an experienced motor vehicle accident attorney can help if you were suspected of distracted driving or if you suspect that the other driver was distracted. An attorney can inform you of your rights and protect them in court. As an example, an attorney could request permission from the court to search the other driver’s device for evidence of distraction.