Drivers in California, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia, beware: law enforcement is cracking down on distracted drivers with new state laws. These new laws aim to expand the definition of “distraction” and increase penalties. Two state laws from California and Wisconsin go into effect as soon as January 2017 while two others from New Jersey and the District of Columbia await legislative approval.
The newly proposed laws increase penalties and modify current distracted driving state laws to include other mobile devices and distracting activities.
What is “distracted” driving?
Distracted driving includes any activity that distracts the driver from the primary responsibility of driving. If it takes your eyes or mind off of the road, it’s a distraction. Here are a few examples of distractions to drivers:
- Texting or talking on a mobile phone
- Operating or focusing on a handheld device or app
- Eating and drinking
- Putting on makeup
- Shaving and other hygienic or grooming activities
- Talking to passengers
- Checking a map or GPS device
- Tending to children or pets
- Reading and writing
Most distracted driving laws tend to focus on mobile phone use, specifically texting and talking. Despite this, other distractions are still offensible in most states. You will want to pay attention to the changes in these laws as they can cost you even more money if you get caught.
How have the laws changed?
All four of the new laws expand upon current distracted driving state laws, especially in regards to monetary penalties. Legislators believe that the penalties for distracted driving aren’t effective enough at deterring distraction and that the scope of what constitutes a distraction must be widened to accommodate distraction trends.
Keep in mind that distracted driving violations receive primary enforcement in most states, including California, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia. Primary enforcement means that if a police officer sees you violating these laws, it is legal for them to pull you over and ticket you for just that violation.
Here are brief summaries of current distracted driving laws and the changes being made or considered in four states.
Current California distracted driving law only prohibits texting while driving (California Vehicle Code §23123 through 23125) and imposes a $20 fine for the first violation and $50 for subsequent violations. That law has been amended by Assembly Bill 1785 which will go into effect on January 1, 2017. The new law includes these provisions:
- The physical use of ALL handheld wireless communication devices while driving is prohibited.
- You can use your device only if you use its voice-operated or hands-free functions.
- You can physically use your device only if it is mounted to your windshield OR if a feature can be activated or deactivated with a single swipe or tap.
- No changes to the penalties.
Current New Jersey distracted driving law prohibits the use of mobile phones while driving unless you are using your phone’s hands-free functions or you’re making an emergency call. A new law is currently under legislative review and would amend the current law to include these provisions:
- “Electronic communication devices” is added alongside wireless telephones as a class of prohibited devices for drivers. Amateur radio is excluded from the ban.
- Any activity that isn’t related to safely operating the vehicle is prohibited.
- Penalty for first violation: $200 to $400
- Penalty for second violation: $400 to $600
- Penalty for third and subsequent violations: $600 to $800, a 90-day license suspension, and 3 penalty points added to your license
This proposal would significantly increase violation penalties from the current $100 to $250 non-scaling (flat-fee) penalty and add administrative penalties for third and subsequent offenses. It would also expand the scope of distractions beyond mobile phones.
Wisconsin’s distracted driving laws were recently amended and went into effect on October 1, 2016. The amendment includes these provisions:
- The physical use of a mobile phone in a construction or road work zone is prohibited except for reporting an emergency.
- Drivers can only use mobile phones in work zones if they are using the phone’s hands-free options or if they are activating or deactivating a device function or feature.
- Penalty for first violation for any distracted driving law: $20 to $40
- Penalty for subsequent violations: $50 to $100
Wisconsin still has a general ban on any activities that distract a driver from safely operating their vehicle. This new amendment merely highlights a specific safety hazard in work zones and prohibits drivers from handling their phones in these critical areas.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Current District of Columbia law prohibits distracted driving in general and includes provisions prohibiting certain distractions, including mobile phones and other electronic devices. A new proposed bill under legislative review aims to amend the laws to increase penalties and establish a “three strikes” penalty system:
- Penalty for first violation: $100
- Penalty for second violation: $150
- Penalty for third and subsequent violations within 18 months: $200 and a 30 to 180-day driver’s license suspension
The current penalty for violating the distracted driving laws is $100, regardless of whether you received a similar violation before.
What are some easy ways to avoid distraction?
Use your phone’s hands-free functions or a Bluetooth accessory, ignore texts until you’ve parked and turned your car off, and avoid grooming yourself on-the-go. Help your friends and family understand the dangers of sending you texts or calling you when you’re not available to talk while driving. You can avoid a costly ticket and save yourself and others from additional costs or injuries by simply focusing on driving—do not multitask!
The real danger of distracted driving isn’t a ticket but the potential of an accident resulting in injury or death. More than 3,000 fatalities and about 431,000 injuries resulted from distracted driving accidents in 2014—numbers that could continue to rise with longer commutes and evolving technologies.
If you were involved in an accident involving distracted driving, speak with an attorney who can review your case. An attorney can also keep you informed of changing laws.