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Effectiveness: 1 Star Cost: Varies
Use: Included under reckless driving; use of explicit distraction laws is low High
Included under reckless driving; use of explicit distraction laws is low
Time: Short

Overall Effectiveness Concerns: Laws that specifically target distracted drivers (including handheld and texting bans) are not widely enforced, and this countermeasure has not been systematically examined. There are insufficient evaluation data available to conclude that the countermeasure is effective.

Existing State laws allow people to be cited and prosecuted if they cause crashes due to distracted driving; however, the extent to which States pursue cases of inattentive driving is currently unknown. In 2009 Maine enacted a general distracted driving law. A driver who is involved in a crash or who commits an infraction can be cited for distracted driving if a police officer believes that to be the underlying cause. The law defines distraction as an activity not necessary to the operation of the vehicle that impairs, or could impair, the ability to drive safely. Utah has a law that prohibits “careless driving,” which is defined as committing a moving violation (other than speeding) while being distracted by one or more activities unrelated to driving (GHSA, 2011). Potentially distracting activities covered by the law include talking on a handheld phone, searching for an item in the vehicle, or attending to personal hygiene or grooming.

No studies have evaluated whether general reckless driving laws or distracted driving laws have any effect (except for cell phone laws: see the Distracted Driving chapter, Section 1.2). Based on extensive experience in other traffic safety areas, it is likely that these laws will have little or no effect unless they are vigorously publicized and enforced. See the Alcohol- and Drug-Impaired Driving chapter, Sections 2.1 on alcohol-impaired driving, the Seat Belts and Child Restraints chapter, Sections 2.1, 3.1, and 3.2 on seat belt use laws, and the Speeding and Speed Management chapter, Sections 2.2 and 4.1 on aggressive driving and speeding laws. Enforcement of distracted driving laws especially difficult because distraction is often difficult to observe, measure, and document. Nevertheless, these laws may increase the impact of communications and outreach efforts to reduce distracted driving (discussed in Section 2.1) as laws help emphasize the importance of the message (see also Stutts et al., 2005, Strategy C2).

Use: New Jersey, Maine, and Utah have laws explicitly addressing distractions other than cell phones (GHSA, 2011). Other States include these conditions under their laws regarding reckless driving or similar offenses.

Effectiveness: The effect of general laws on reducing distracted driving is unknown. Part of the challenge in enforcing the laws may be the complexity in establishing proof that a driver was distracted by activities such as grooming. Officers might also face difficulties determining if a driver was performing illegal functions on the phone or using it for reasons permitted by law, such as navigation or hands-free use (GHSA, 2013). Inconsistencies in what constitutes legal use of devices, policies that may not apply to all drivers under all situations, and cognitive dissonance with officers enforcing distraction laws to which they themselves do not always comply, could add to obstacles in enforcing distracted driving (Nevin et al., 2017).

Costs: Costs are required for publicity and enforcement. Enforcement costs likely will be minimal, as most enforcement likely will be included under regular traffic patrols or combined with enforcement directed primarily at other offenses such as alcohol-impaired or aggressive driving. However, special patrols to enforce distracted driving laws will entail greater costs, especially if overtime is required for LEOs.

Time to implement: The implementation time is primarily determined by the time required to pass new distracted driving laws. Implementation can begin as soon as it is publicized and law enforcement patrol officers are trained.