There are two reasons why the law struggles to keep pace with new and emerging technology. For one, it’s very difficult to forecast technological innovation. Second, the web crosses state and national borders, but laws vary from state to state.
The law also requires consensus. However, Moore’s Law, a computing term coined in about 1970, suggests computing power doubles every two years — it’s an ever increasing pace of progress that outpaces the ability of legislators to achieve the needed consensus.
In an attempt to keep up with this ever-changing technology, state laws concerning mobile phones and other electronics while driving have been piecemeal. It’s expected that laws concerning new technology, such as automated vehicles, may be just as piecemeal.
Cell Phone Distractions While Driving
22% of all automobile accidents. Distracted driving takes a variety of forms. It can be visual (when taking your eyes off the road), manual (when taking your hands off the wheel) and cognitive (when taking your mind off the road).
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Association, driver inattention is considered either a primary or contributing factor in approximately
Drivers are faced with distractions all the time, such as tending to children, talking to passengers, applying makeup, eating, changing radio stations or glancing at maps. If a driver has to take their eyes off the road for more than a fraction of a second, it can be dangerous.
Cell phones are also a distraction, with studies suggesting that dialing and answering cell phones contributes to accident rates. According to studies at Virginia Tech, distracted drivers are considered four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers. However, other studies have found that an emotionally charged conversation is a more significant factor. Here are a few other sobering statistics:
- In 2013, 3,154 people in the U.S. died in car crashes involving a distracted driver.
- In 2011, 3,331 people died in car accidents due to distracted driving, and an additional 387,000 people were injured.
- Fatalities in the first six months of 2012 among drivers aged 16-17 increased to 240 from 202 in 2011 during the same time period.
Why the Increase in Fatal Car Crashes?
While more teenage drivers on the road could be one explanation of the increase in fatalities for that demographic, distracted driving for all age groups is also on the rise. Cell phones are increasingly commonplace and have become the most quickly adopted consumer technology in history.
A study by the California Office of Safety released in 2015 indicated a 39% increase in the percentage of drivers using wireless devices since 2014. Cell phone technology has made it easier for Americans to keep connected while on the road. However, there continues to be many concerns that cell phone use impairs driving.
Yet, it’s not just talking on the phone and text messaging that may be distracting drivers. The expanding capabilities of mobile technology includes GPS navigation, cameras, voice memo recorders, e-mail and internet access. Now the list also includes streaming video. The more cell phones connect us with the rest of the world, the more challenging it can be for drivers to focus exclusively on the hazards of the road.
What Is Being Done About Distracted Driving?
Although legislation has encouraged the use of hands-free devices for cell phones in an attempt to combat the dangers of using them, some researchers have concluded that hands-free devices may not have reduced the number of car accidents. The problem may not be the actual phone itself, either, so much as the distraction the phone causes.
If drivers spend a lot of time adjusting the hands-free devices, it can be just as distracting as handheld devices. Nonetheless, there’s still some consensus that hand-free devices are less risky if it minimizes the need to handle a cell phone while driving.
However, if hands-free devices aren’t drastically keeping us safer, we should consider whether any technologies are safe enough to eliminate risks for novice drivers. With the development of automated cars likely to make it easier to safely use electronics, perhaps this will be less of an issue in future — although regulations impact what automated vehicles may be required to do, and those regulations vary from state to state.
If we’re to address the possibility of comprehensive legislation concerning distracted driving, we should examine how states, specifically state legislation, have addressed the dangers concerning handheld cell phone usage and texting.
State Distracted Driving Laws
Apart from a ban on texting while driving for federal employees and interstate truck drivers, the federal government has left it to the states to address the dangers of distracted driving. Despite similar dangers across the country, state laws have provided very different responses:
- Montana has not enacted any distracted driver legislation.
- 46 states regulate cell phone use and texting while driving.
- 14 states ban all handheld phone use in vehicles.
- 7 states restrict texting without restricting handheld use — Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wyoming.
Most state laws do make an exception for emergency calls to police, fire departments and medical personnel. In California, for example, cell phones may be used not only to make emergency calls, but people operating emergency vehicles as well as anyone operating vehicles on private property can also use cell phones. In addition, California drivers can use smart phones to check maps.
Some states — including Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and South Carolina — also have preemption laws prohibiting local jurisdictions from enacting their own bans on distracted driving. Other cell phone laws by state include:
- Handheld phones. 14 states, as well as the District of Columbia, prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. All of these states permit primary enforcement of the offense, which means that an officer may cite a driver for using a handheld cell phone without another reason for the stop. Secondary enforcement requires another reason to stop a driver using a cell phone.
- Cell phone use. No state bans all cell phone use for all drivers; however, 38 states, in addition to D.C., ban all cell phone use by novice drivers. 20 states, along with D.C., prohibit cell phone use for school bus drivers, and 47 prohibit texting by school bus drivers.
- Text messaging. 46 states, in addition to D.C., ban text messaging for all drivers. All states, except for five, permit primary enforcement, so an officer can cite a driver for text messaging without the need for another offense. There are three states without an all-driver texting ban. Of those three states, Texas and Missouri prohibit text messaging by novice drivers, while Arizona prohibits school bus drivers from texting.
- Distracted Driving. Maine bans distracted driving but doesn’t specifically address cell phone use.
Which States Ban Cell Phones While Driving?
The following table highlights the levels of cell phone use and text messaging regulations that exist by state:
Age as a Factor
Studies have shown that drivers between 15 and 20 years of age account for 6% of all drivers, but they also account for 10% of traffic deaths and 14% of police-reported crashes.
Although many distracted driving laws restrict cell phone usage for drivers under 18, studies show that adults are as likely as teens to text while driving. Adults are also even more likely than teens to be talking on the phone while driving. According to a survey by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 49% of texting adults say they’ve been passengers in cars while drivers sent or read text messages. In this 2009 study, 2,252 adults and 800 teens participated. Additional findings included:
- 47% of respondents admitted to sending or reading text messages while driving. 24% of teens aged 16-17 admitted to sending or readings texts while driving. This translates to 27% of all American adults reading text messages while driving and 26% of teens texting while driving.
- 75% of cell phone owning adults admitted to talking on a cell phone while driving, while 52% of teens owning cell phones admitted to talking on a cell phone while driving. This translates to 61% of all adults talking on cell phones while driving and 43% of teens talking on cell phones while driving.
- 44% of adults said they were in a car when a driver used a cell phone in a way that put themselves or others in danger. 40% of teens made the same claim.
The Future of Car Technology
Despite concern about cell phone technology impairing the ability of people to drive safely, the exponential expansion of technology may help combat the problem of driver distraction. Cars’ computer systems are becoming far more advanced, and they have extra safety features to warn drivers of impending problems. For instance:
- The Lexus system warns drivers if a car may be close to rear-ending them.
- Mercedes-Benz vehicles include systems that recognize stoplights and stop signs, as well as cyclists and other road hazards.
- The Volvo XC60 uses CitySafety to monitor the roadway, automatically braking if it detects the driver isn’t making an effort to avoid collision.
By giving automobiles the ability to detect and avoid dangers, automated technology may help address driver distraction sooner than legislation ever will — technology solving the problems created by technology.
Given the inconsistency in distracted driver legislation, though, it’s not clear whether the rollout of automated cars will benefit from nationwide policies or whether varied state laws will govern the requirements of automated cars.
With only four states legalizing automated vehicles, it seems it may take time for legislatures to consider how best to regulate the safety issues new technology introduces. Considering the likelihood of deadlocked legislatures, the combative and sluggish pace of political discourse may never keep up with the exponential rate of new technologies.
However, assuming that legislation encourages, rather than hinders, the development of automated technology to eliminate driver error, the problem of distracted drivers may become moot one day. In the meantime, we’ll need to rely on inconsistent state legislation as well as defensive driving skills to combat the problem of distracted driving.