Texting and social media have become popular ways to communicate. Unlike a conversation with someone sitting next to you, though, they require your hands and eyes. That's why texting behind the wheel is generally illegal.
Laws on texting while driving prohibit using electronic devices to write, send, or read messages. These messages can include emails and social media posts. Many laws also prohibit activities like watching videos and gaming via handheld devices while driving.
Distracted drivers risk motor vehicle accidents and expensive tickets. Read on to learn how traffic laws regulate cellphones on the road.
State and Local Cellphone Laws
Like other traffic laws, rules on texting while driving come from state and local governments. The exception is federal-level cellphone restrictions that only apply to federal employees.
Danger arises when drivers take their eyes off the road to read, scroll, or send a text message. Handheld phone laws have rapidly grown as mobile phones and especially smartphones have grown more integrated into daily life.
Many laws allow some form of hands-free device use, but the types of prohibited actions can vary greatly. Check your state's texting laws to know what to avoid behind the wheel.
How Cellphone Laws Work
Almost all states have passed laws explicitly banning texting while driving. Other laws might cover the use of handheld devices more broadly.
These laws may address a few details and exceptions, such as whether you can:
- Make hands-free audio calls with speakerphone or Bluetooth communication devices
- Touch your phone for navigational purposes
- Make handheld calls to emergency services
- Use your phone freely at a red light or stop sign
- Use voice commands or text-to-speech options
- Listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts
- Record or stream video while driving
Some text message bans specifically apply to public transit and school bus drivers. Distinct cellphone laws may also apply to school zones or work zones.
Age-Based Cellphone Bans
Some states have unique novice driver laws for new or teen drivers. These laws usually impose stricter limits than the texting restrictions for experienced drivers.
The exact definition of a novice driver depends on the state. Most states ban phone use for drivers under 18 years old. Adult drivers might fall under novice driver laws if they have a learner's permit, provisional license, or intermediate license.
Lack of Explicit Cellphone Laws
As of 2023, only Montana lacks a statewide texting ban. Yet many cities and municipalities have passed local ordinances against cellphone use while driving.
Even in places without specific texting bans, it still might break the law. Using your phone may violate more general distracted driving laws, which prohibit various activities while driving.
Texting While Driving Enforcement
Most places with mobile phone laws allow primary law enforcement. This term means that police officers may pull over and cite drivers for handheld cellphone use even if they observe no other violation.
Very few areas, such as Missouri, reject the primary enforcement style. Instead, they only allow officers to enforce cellphone violations when they cite a driver for another traffic violation.
Don't assume a police officer will excuse a quick message or call. If law enforcement notices you using your phone instead of paying attention to the road, you will likely get a traffic ticket.
Punishment for Texting While Driving
Punishment for texting while driving offenses varies by jurisdiction. The penalty for a first offense is typically a fine. You might also get demerit points against your driver's license in some states. Car insurance companies may charge you more for coverage.
Getting repeat tickets for cellphone use often raises the fine and can risk driver's license suspension. Under some state laws, serious repeat offenders may face jail time.
Cellphone Use and Car Accident Liability
Texting while driving poses dangers far beyond traffic tickets. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that 12% of fatal distracted driving collisions in 2021 involved cellphone use.
Car accidents due to distracted driving can lead to a life-changing injury or lawsuit. The driver using their phone may be negligent and liable for the costs of the injuries and property damage. Police may also charge the driver with a high-level criminal offense like reckless driving instead of a lower texting citation.
The texting driver may want to sue someone else over an accident. Texting while driving may constitute comparative or contributory negligence. Even if the other driver made a mistake, the texting driver might not get compensation.
Consult an Experienced Traffic Ticket Lawyer
If you have a citation for using your cellphone, you may need an experienced traffic ticket lawyer to help you. Penalties for texting while driving are often steep. A skilled attorney with experience in traffic defense can evaluate all the evidence to ensure your legal rights are protected.