Worst States For Distracted Drivers
Hannah Elliott, 03.17.10, 04:20 PM EDT
Using iPhones and Blackberrys while behind the wheel in these areas of the country will result in harsh penalties.
The auto industry is focusing on safety now more than ever. A distracted-driving summit sponsored by the Department of Transportation last September convened 300 safety experts, law enforcement and congressional reps--and led to a federal ban on texting by commercial truck and bus drivers.
There's good reason for the attention: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 80% of all car crashes are related to driver inattention. Six thousand fatal crashes each year involve an inattentive driver--and cellphone use is the No. 1 culprit.
"Left unchecked, distracted driving caused by devices such as cellphones will rival drunk driving as a national vehicle safety problem," says Clarence Ditlow, the executive direct of the Center for Auto Safety, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee last fall.
All told, seven states have outright bans on using any handheld cell phone while driving (California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington), as do the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Wireless headsets are banned for young drivers (under 18 or 21, depending on the state) in 21 states and D.C. Nineteen states and D.C. ban text messaging for all drivers; nine other states ban it for minors and/or new drivers.
Behind the Numbers
To compile our list of the toughest states on distracted drivers, we culled distracted-driving law and penalty information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Governors Highway Safety Administration, Handsfreeinfo.com, the Center for Auto Safety and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The states on our list ban the use of handheld cellphones and ban text messaging while driving, either as a primary or secondary infraction. (A “primary enforcement" cellphone law means an officer can stop a driver and issue a ticket if the driver is using a cellphone while driving. A “secondary enforcement” law means the officer can stop drivers only if they are violating a primary law, like speeding or running a stop sign, but then can cite a cellphone ban violation on the ticket.).
Some states, like New Jersey and the District of Columbia, also ban headset use for some drivers. Further legislation to increase the amount of distraction-related fines is pending in many of these states.
Of course, distraction isn't just about phones--eating, grooming, reading and arguing all divert manual (hands) and cognitive (mind) attention from the road. In-car technology like navigation systems and television screens are also potentially dangerous, for the same reasons.
Dr. Nicholas Ashford, a professor of technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he expects to soon see a lawsuit brought against an automaker for providing the diversion, because that technology is an "attractive nuisance." It's the same concept that applies when a homeowner with an unfenced pool is held responsible when a neighbor child drowns there on a hot day, he says.
"The automobile companies are taking a tremendous risk by putting the interactive TV in the car by deliberately creating and placing a technology that has the potential to divert audio and visual attention," Ashford says. "If I were an in-house attorney at Ford, I'd say, 'Are you crazy? Don't you know what you're doing?' I think there's tremendous liability."
Ashford said he knows of no such lawsuits currently pending.
But cellphones are the worst culprits. NHTSA reports that people using either hand-held or hands-free cellphones drive the same as if they had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08%--the legal threshold. A driver using a mobile phone is four times as likely to have a crash than a driver not using a phone; texting increases that risk by 23.2 times, according to a 2009 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
It's the drivers in the West who need the most help--NHTSA reports that in 2008, the most recent year with complete data, 2.1% of them were recorded as using a hand-held electronic device while driving, compared to just 0.4% in the Northeast and 0.8% in the Midwest.
Oregon, though, is getting tougher on drivers. Its latest ban forbids handheld devices and texting for all drivers and prohibits minors from using any type of cellphone. Fines are at least $142 for violations of either ban.
It's also been a widely debated issue in California. (Remember the fallout from Maria Shriver's inopportune cellphone conversations last October?) The state has a primary ban on all hand-held phones and a ban on head-sets for bus drivers and minors. It also bans anyone from texting while driving. Fines for the first ban violation are $20, with a maximum fine for further offenses of $50, not including court fees.
On the East Coast, New Hampshire has received the most attention lately for its new ban on text messaging. While the state doesn't limit mobile phone use per-se, it has established a strict distracted driving law, which includes fines for eating, applying make-up and talking on a cell phone while behind the wheel.
MIT's Ashford says such standards will be effective. Jim Van Dongen isn't so sure. The texting ban has symbolic value, he says, but is difficult to enforce. (Pat Swift-Oladeinde, a spokeswoman for NHTSA, said it's up to the states to decide whether they're effective.)
"Would a cop pull somebody over for texting? Probably not, unless the car was swerving all over the road," says Van Dongen, the public information officer for the New Hampshire Department of Safety. "And if the car was swerving all over the road, they would go after it whether the person was texting or driving under the influence. You can't really see from the outside of the car what somebody's doing."
Places like D.C. have had more time to see results. The district began enforcing a cellphone band in 2004, and more than 42,000 tickets have been issued since then. IIHS reports that five years after the ban, phone use was down 43% from what would have been expected without it.
As of January, California Highway Patrol officers had issued more than 231,000 tickets to drivers using handheld phones. (The cellphone law there began July 1, 2008; the texting ban began Jan. 1, 2009.)
Van Dongen is still waiting for his first. In the three months since the ban's inception, New Hampshire police have yet to cite anyone for violating it.