Cell Phone Laws
Cell phones have become an essential feature of modern life. In a 2015 NHTSA survey of more than 6,000 U.S. residents, 42% admitted to answering phone calls while driving and 56% of these drivers continued driving while talking on the phone (Schroeder et al., 2018). NHTSA’s 2021 national observation survey found 2.5% of drivers on the road at any given moment were talking on a handheld cell phone (NCSA, 2022). NHTSA currently estimates that 7.6% of drivers are using some type of phone (handheld or hands-free) in a typical daylight moment. These estimates may underrepresent cell phone use given the inherent difficulty in accurately observing these behaviors.
Many studies have investigated the effects of cell phone use on driving (See Caird et al., 2018, and McCartt et al., 2006, for reviews). Experiments on simulators or test tracks indicate that talking on a cell phone has some effect on driving performance, most commonly slowed reaction times, but these experiments cannot measure the impact on crash risk. Analyses of crash events using SHRP2 NDS data found that talking on a cell phone doubled the odds of the driver being involved in a crash (Dingus et al., 2016). Reaching for a phone, texting, and dialing a phone increased crash risk even more—by 5 times, 6 times, and 12 times, respectively. The elevated risk of a crash was much higher when operating a phone in comparison to more traditional sources of distraction such as tuning a radio or talking to a passenger. Dialing and texting are particularly dangerous behaviors because they take a driver’s eyes, hands, and attention away from the task of driving. Experimental studies using driving simulators suggest that texting drivers spend up to 400% more time looking away from the road and are more likely to leave their lane than when not text messaging (Drews et al., 2009; Hosking et al., 2009). Finally, studies have found that hands-free phones offer little or no safety advantage over handheld phones (Caird et al., 2018; Ishigami & Klein, 2009; McEvoy et al., 2005; Redelmeier & Tibshirani, 1997). However, comparing the results of several studies, the risks associated with talking on a cell phone has conflicting results in the literature.
States have been very active in using legislation to address this issue. Since 2000 every State has considered legislation to curtail distracted driving or driver cell phone use. In 2020 legislators in 41 States considered more than 115 bills related to distracted driving (Bloch et al., 2021). As of November 2021 talking on a handheld cell phone was prohibited in 24 States (IIHS, 2021b). No State completely bans all types of cell phone use for all drivers. Bans on texting are more common than bans on handheld cell phone use. Overall, public support is high for this legislation. In surveys of the general public from 70% to 80% favor bans on handheld cell phone use, and 88% to 97% support bans on texting while driving (AAAFTS, 2018; Guarino, 2013; Schroeder et al., 2018).
Drivers’ attitudes and beliefs about the safety of using a cell phone while driving are incongruous with their actions. Maher & Ott (2013) found that drivers in New Jersey are knowledgeable about the law and assert that the law is necessary; however, a significant portion of these drivers also admitted to having violated the law. A more recent national survey indicates that communication of the existence of State laws has generally been effective (Schroeder et al., 2018). Just over 90% of drivers in States that have laws banning cell phones know that these laws are in place. However, driver perceptions are less accurate in States without these laws, where just over half of drivers incorrectly believe that their State has such a law. Driver responses also suggest that communication efforts have fostered the perception that drivers are at risk of getting stopped for cell phone use. Specifically, over half of drivers think they are very or somewhat likely to get a ticket for talking on a cell phone while driving, while only 3.6% of drivers report ever having been stopped for engaging in this behavior (Schroeder et al., 2018).
As of November 2021 talking on a handheld cell phone was prohibited in 24 States (IIHS, 2021b). The cell phone bans in each of these States are primary laws. In addition, several local jurisdictions such as Hampton, Virginia, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, have enacted their own restrictions on cell phones. Most States prohibit text messaging while driving. As of November 2021 there were 48 States and the District of Columbia that prohibit text messaging for all drivers (IIHS, 2021b).
Evaluations in New York, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, and in other countries consistently show that cell phone laws reduce handheld phone use by about 50% shortly after the laws take effect (McCartt et al., 2006). However, a review and synthesis of 11 peer-reviewed articles found that, while bans are highly effective at reducing cell phone use while driving, the effect on crash outcomes is mixed (McCartt et al., 2014). Some studies showed no change in crash rates for both handheld cell phone use and texting, while others showed increases in crashes after the ban (although most of the studies reviewed had limitations that diminish the strength of their conclusions). These findings suggest that the impact on crash rates from cell phone bans is not clear, even though such bans are effective at reducing handheld cell phone use. Additionally, in a review of 11 articles Ehsani et al. (2016) found that cell phone restrictions do not appear to result in a long-term deterrence of cell phone use among young drivers.
For example, with respect to laws banning handheld cell phone use, a study by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) investigated State-level automobile insurance collision claims in California, Connecticut, New York, and the District of Columbia. When compared to neighboring States, there was no change in collision claim frequency after these jurisdictions implemented handheld cell phone bans. The data from HLDI is proprietary, and not all crashes result in a collision claim, so collision claim rates may differ from crash rates (HLDI, 2009). Liu et al. (2019) looked specifically at crashes caused by cell phone use before and after a handheld ban was enacted in California in 2008. They found a 66% reduction in crashes caused by handheld phone use after the ban took effect, but a slight increase in crashes involving hands-free phones. This suggests some drivers may have switched from handheld to hands-free phones after the ban. However, cell phones caused only a tiny fraction of all crashes (less than 1%), suggesting these crashes were severely underreported in the data.
Several studies have examined the effectiveness of laws prohibiting texting while driving. One study evaluated the effect of a texting ban in Michigan (Ehsani et al., 2014); another examined insurance collision claims in States with texting bans compared to neighboring States without such bans (HLDI, 2011). Both studies found small increases in various types of crashes and collision claims following enactment of texting bans. One possible explanation is that texting drivers attempt to avoid detection by hiding their phones from view, which may result in more time with drivers’ eyes off the roadway. Crash increases were also found in a study of crash data in New Jersey (Maher & Ott, 2013). While crashes declined statewide, cell phone-related crashes increased after a cell phone and texting law was enacted. In contrast to these studies, another study of 16 States found a 4% reduction in motor vehicle-related emergency department visits in States that had texting bans (Ferdinand et al., 2019).
As with any law, costs are required to publicize and enforce it. A handheld cell phone law can be enforced during regular traffic patrol because drivers who are using a handheld phone can be observed relatively easily. However, some States with cell phone bans allow drivers to use a phone for specific purposes while driving (e.g., navigation), which can make enforcement more challenging. As with other traffic safety laws, paid and earned advertising supporting highly visible law enforcement may be necessary to achieve substantial effects.
Time to implement:
A cell phone law can be implemented quickly. Publicizing the law is important and will take longer.
Cell phone bans for young drivers: Thirty-six States and the District of Columbia have phone use bans specifically targeting young drivers. Sometimes these restrictions are included in a State’s GDL system. However, evaluations of cell phone restrictions specific to teenage drivers suggest these restrictions have little effect on cell phone use (Ehsani et al., 2016; Foss et al., 2009; Goodwin et al., 2012).