COMMENTARY: Cell Phone Driving Laws Restricting Cell Phone Use Go Too Far

Let’s ticket drivers who drive carelessly; don’t assume all cell phone users are careless drivers.

by Kathy Tatone, Attorney

Feb. 21, 2008
Cell PhoneCell phones play an integral role in most peoples’ lives. It’s hard to imagine walking, working or driving without our phones nearby. Most drivers believe they can talk on the phone while driving without becoming distracted, just as they can change playlists on their MP3 player, eat lunch, put on makeup and attend to their children while driving. Now, however, many states and municipalities have decided that using a cell phone while driving is more dangerous than any other distraction.
At least 25 states have enacted statutes regulating the use of cell phones while driving. These states have taken a variety of approaches, including a ban for drivers younger than age 18, bus drivers and handheld phones.

  • Five states (California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Washington) and Washington, D.C., prohibit driving while talking on handheld phones.
  • Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., passed cell phone driving laws banning novice drivers from using cell phones while driving.
  • School bus drivers in 14 states and Washington, D.C., are prohibited from using cell phones when passengers are present, except during emergencies.
  • In May 2007, Washington became the first state to ban driving while typing a text message. New Jersey followed suit in November, and a few other states are considering a similar measure.
  • No state completely bans all types of cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) while driving.

Some say that driving while talking on a cell phone is as dangerous as driving drunk. That seems to be a stretch. It is true that using a cell phone while driving can be distracting, especially if a hands-free device isn’t used. However, driving while drunk involves a loss of judgment and coordination that goes beyond mere distraction. If cell phones truly were as dangerous as drunken driving, there would be a great many more accidents along with deaths and injuries on our roads involving them. In reality, the number is small compared to drunk driving.
The use of cell phones while driving certainly raises concerns, but the harm should not be exaggerated in the zeal to impose restrictions. A 2006 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration examined the consequences of cell phone usage on the road. While cell phone use was found, unsurprisingly, to be a distraction, it was determined to be less likely to cause crashes than other common distractions that are not regulated. Exaggerating danger is a way to control legislative action by creating a false sense of fear that builds public support to enact unnecessary regulation.
New Hampshire and Utah have taken a balanced approach by passing legislation that holds drivers responsible for inattention whenever any distraction in their vehicle results in a traffic violation. Cell phone use is acceptable within the purview of these statutes as long as it does not result in dangerous driving. These states have determined that a competent driver can decide which activities are too distracting while driving.
How do we put the genie that is the cell phone back in the bottle? Cell phones have become so much a part of our daily lives. In certain situations, cell phone use may result in safer driving. For example, if you call someone to say you will be late, you may be more likely to drive slowly and carefully.
Even if driving while using a cell phone was a huge problem — a fact that statistics do not support — it should be addressed by broad distracted-driver statutes such as those in New Hampshire and Utah. Such reckless-driving laws allow police officers to pull over cell phone users who drive dangerously. Let’s use these laws, which have worked for decades, to punish dangerous drivers.