We drive past signs on our roadways that warn, "Talk, Text, Crash" or "Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other." The warnings are reminders that distracted driving has become a traffic safety epidemic, creating challenges and dangers on U.S. roadways.
Distracted driving includes any activity that diverts a driver's attention from the road. Using a cellphone is a distraction, of course, but so is eating or manipulating a GPS system in hopes of finding the fastest route to work. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show that, in 2017, crashes involving a distraction led to 3,166 deaths. However, the number of lives lost because of distracted driving each year is likely much higher. Because of challenges identifying and citing distracted drivers, available data often under-count crashes that involve distraction.
The growing awareness of the dangers of distracted driving has not yet translated into reducing the behavior, however. AAA's 2017 traffic safety culture index indicates that 45% of drivers surveyed reported having read a text or email while driving within the past 30 days.
Legislating to Save Lives
Each state has enacted some form of distracted driving law. Currently, 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers. Twenty states and the District of Columbia ban the use of handheld wireless devices behind the wheel.
At least 22 states debated handheld mobile device bans this year. As of July 1, however, only Arizona, Maine, Minnesota and Tennessee had enacted such legislation.
Arizona's recent handheld ban garnered attention because the state's previous distracted driving law banned only drivers under the age of 18 from texting. The state enacted two bills that apply to all drivers: One bans texting while driving, the other prohibits handheld phone use. Law enforcement officers are permitted to issue warnings for distracted driving offenses and will issue citations starting in 2021.
"A huge part of this law is about changing behavior--to stop driving distracted," says Representative Noel Campbell (R), who sponsored the state's legislation. He notes that cities and counties had already passed their own ordinances banning handheld phone use. The state's new legislation alerts drivers that when they enter Arizona, handheld phone use is prohibited statewide.
The Massachusetts House voted in May to ban the use of mobile devices while driving. "With...