The Strictest and Most Lenient States on
Distracted Driving

Published on October 8th, 2015
by The Sutliff & Stout Research Team


distracted-driving-laws-study-ss In recent years the popularity of cell phones, tablets, and PDAs has increased. As a result, we’ve witnessed dramatic increases in the number of injurious and, oftentimes, fatal, auto accidents due to distracted drivers who choose to text or talk while operating a vehicle.

Visual impairment due to the driver taking his or her eyes off of the road; manual impairment or taking one or both hands off of the steering wheel; and impairment of the driver’s mental focus are all effects of distracted driving.

Distracted driving results in an estimated one-in-five, or 17 percent, of all automobile accidents. By the numbers, this means that an average of nine people die, and 1,060 people are injured everyday, in distracted driving-related incidents.

Contents:

  • Jump to State by State Ranks
  • Jump to Main Findings
  • Jump to Detailed Findings
  • Jump to Methodology

Laws to combat and prohibit distracted driving are relatively new, with the majority coming into the effect only in the last ten years. While some states have expanded their distracted driving laws to include any activity that is distracting (for example, putting on make-up) the majority of states limit their laws to the use of cell phones and similar devices. To determine which states have the strictest regulations concerning cell phone-related distracted driving, and which states do not, we reviewed the distracted driving laws in every state, as well as the District of Columbia. The results, and our scoring methodology, are below.

State-by-State Rankings

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Main Findings

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Overall RankStatePenalities Rank
  • Each state was ranked based on its overall strictness as to texting and driving as well as the strictness of its penalties.1While the actual level that these laws are enforced is also an important concern the reality is that many states have found the laws to be difficult to enforce as cell phones may not be visible to law enforcement agents if in a driver’s lap and messages and call logs are easily deleted. Where the only way to prove a violation is frequently to subpoena cellular records doing so oftentimes proves too costly and inefficient to warrant the trouble. Ninety-four percent of the states have anti-texting laws; 29 percent require hands-free devices; and all states where hands-free laws are in effect also prohibit texting.
  • Most states consider distracted driving to be a non-moving or a minor, non-reportable offense with little to no driving record or insurance points assessed; therefore, the additional cost of insurance and likelihood of license suspension are minimal. Thus, these items were not included in the main findings. Notable outliers include New York, which recently carries a penalty of five points; Wisconsin, which has a four-point penalty; and North Dakota, which has an automatic license suspension after three violations. In states where violations of these laws result in an assessment of points, too many points may result in the suspension of a driver’s license. States that do not assess points may, however, impact a driver’s record in other ways, such as by assessing extra penalties when a driver is involved in an accident while using a cell phone in Florida and Maine, among others.
  • Most states (88 percent) with distracted driving laws consider violations to be primary offenses, meaning offenses for which an officer may stop and cite a driver without another cause (such as speeding.) The remainder of the states with distracted driving laws consider violations to be secondary offenses, and require an underlying moving violation to be the initial cause for law enforcement detainment and citation.
  • Alaska has the strictest penalties of all of the states, with first-offense fines up to $10,000 and a one-year jail sentence. Generally, however, the penalties are much less with twelve states imposing first-time fines of $50 or less; seventeen states imposing first-time fines between $51 and $100; seventeen states imposing fines between $101 and $500, and two states imposing fines of more than $500. Subsequent offenders may expect to pay, on average, up to $500 in fines.
  • Some states with hands-free driving laws waive fines for first-time offenders if a hands-free device can be shown to have later been purchased. These expressly include Washington, D.C., and Connecticut, whereas in other states the decision to waive a fine may be at the discretion of the judge.
  • For new drivers the penalties may be harsher with at least three states automatically suspending the licenses of new drivers who have been found to have violated the regulations (including Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York,) and many more states increasing fines to new drivers. Seventy-nine percent of the states have specifically enacted harsher regulations on new drivers, frequently banning the use of any cell phones whatsoever while operating a vehicle. Likewise, 38 percent of the states with distracted driving laws have expressly banned the use of cell phones by bus drivers.
  • At least two states ban the use of all cell phones in special zones, such as near schools and in construction areas while other states have included devices outside of cell phones (such as games and video streaming devices.)
  • Finally, in states where the laws may not be all-encompassing, cities have enacted their own special regulations, such as in Texas and Massachusetts.

Detailed Findings

Our complete findings are detailed in this excel dataset: DistractedDrivingData.xlsx

Methodology

To measure the strictness of states’ laws against distracted driving, we collected data for all fifty U.S. states as well as Washington D.C. and then applied the following scoring criteria. The states with the strictest laws have the highest scores.

General Considerations

1) Hands-free usage required?
  • Yes – 5 points
  • No – 0 points

2) Texting prohibited?
  • Yes – 5 points
  • No – 0 points

3) Type of law (primary or secondary)
  • Primary – 2 points
  • Secondary – 1 point
  • None – 0 points

*The points under considerations #1 and 2 were multiplied by the points for consideration #3 to find the total severity of the law. If the states had different types of laws for hands-free restrictions and texting restrictions the higher value of the two was assigned.

4) Special express restrictions for novice drivers (not included in the general restrictions)?
  • Yes, license length-/type-dependent – 2 points
  • Yes, age-dependent – 1 point
  • None – 0 points

5) Type of law for novice drivers (primary or secondary)
  • Primary – 2 points
  • Secondary – 1 point
  • None – 0 points

*The points under consideration #4 were multiplied by the points for consideration #5 to find the total severity of the law. If the states had different types of laws for hands-free restrictions and texting restrictions the higher value of the two was assigned.

6) Special express restrictions for bus drivers (not included in the general restrictions)?
  • Yes – 1 point
  • No – 0 points

7) Special zone restrictions (e.g. school or construction zones)?
  • Yes – 1 point
  • No – 0 points

8) Additional device restrictions (e.g. Mp3 players, video games)?
  • Yes – 1 point
  • No – 0 points

Total Points: 19

Penalties

9) Fine for first violation
  • $10,000+ – 6 points
  • $1,001 – $9,999 – 5 points
  • $501 – $1,000 – 4 points
  • $101 – $500 – 3 points
  • $51-$100 – 2 points
  • $1 – $50 – 1 point

*Includes court costs, when information is available.

10) Fine for second or subsequent violation
  • $10,000+ – 6 points
  • $1,001 – $9,999 – 5 points
  • $501 – $1,000 – 4 points
  • $101 – $500 – 3 points
  • $51-$100 – 2 points
  • $1 – $50 – 1 point

*Includes court costs, when information was available.

11) Fine for third or subsequent violation
  • $10,000+ – 6 points
  • $1,001 – $9,999 – 5 points
  • $501 – $1,000 – 4 points
  • $101 – $500 – 3 points
  • $51-$100 – 2 points
  • $1 – $50 – 1 point

*Includes court costs, when information was available.

12) Jail potential for first violation?
  • Yes – 3 points
  • No – 0 points

Total Points: 21