Preventing Distracted Driving
Distracted Activity - Talking on The Cell Phone

Distracted Driving: Talking On The Cell Phone Dangers, Laws & Penalties

Updated Dec. 16, 2020

Using a cell phone is one of the most risk-enhancing mistakes you can make while operating a moving vehicle. Many motorists assume that this only applies to hand-held cell phone use, though hands-free phone activity can be equally as dangerous.

Studies have shown that:

  • Drivers who use hand-held or hands-free cell phones while driving have a reaction time like that of a person with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent – which is over the legal limit.
  • Motorists devote roughly 37 percent less brainpower to the task of driving while using a cell phone.

According to the National Safety Council (NSC) motorists who use cell phones while driving are responsible for around 1.6 million accidents and collisions every year. In 2013, cell phone-related distracted driving collisions resulted in 445 deaths. Despite this, a recent American Automobile Association poll found that 35 percent of teen drivers admitted to using their cell phones while driving. Taking this into account, it is not surprising that 21 percent of teenage drivers involved in fatal car accidents were distracted by their cell phones at the time of the crash.

As a society, we have become so dependent on smartphones and social media that we cannot conceive of passing a few seconds without checking our cells. Before you begin learning to drive, come to terms with the fact that you cannot use your cell phone while driving – consider it off-limits. Your full attention must be dedicated to the driving task, the entire time your vehicle is moving.

Cell phone laws

Cell phone use while driving is strictly regulated and often restricted around the United States. As is the case with any dangerous traffic infraction, breaking a cell phone law may result in heavy fines, license suspensions and even jail time.

As of 2019, no state has yet banned all cell phone use for all drivers. Though cell phone use is restricted to some degree everywhere, so it is important that you know the rules in your state. Sometimes, cell phone laws that differ from the general state law are established in specific municipalities. When traveling to an unfamiliar town or county, check out the cell phone information on the local government website to make sure you stay on the right side of the law.

Text messaging while driving is more widely restricted than talking on a cell phone while driving. Our next module will cover text messaging laws around the United States; here, we’re going to look at hand-held and hands-free talking laws across various states.

  • Arizona: All drivers are banned from talking on a hand-held cell phone. School bus drivers and intermediate permit holders under 18 years-old are also banned from talking via a hands-free device. Penalties for an initial violation are fines ranging from $75 up to $149, though they will not be applicable until 2021. Until then, law enforcement officers will issue warnings to any person caught talking on their cell.
  • California: All drivers are banned from talking on a hand-held cell phone. School bus drivers and all drivers under 18-years old are also banned from talking via a hands-free device. The penalty for violating this ban is a fine of $20 for a first offense or $50 for a subsequent offense.
  • District of Columbia: All drivers are banned from talking on a hand-held cell phone. School bus drivers and drivers of any age with a learner’s permit are also banned from talking via a hands-free device. The penalty for violating this ban is a fine of up to $100 and one point against the offender’s license for each offense.
  • Florida: No ban on hand-held or hands-free talking for any driver.
  • Georgia: All drivers are banned from talking on a hand-held cell phone. School bus drivers and all drivers under 18 years-old are also banned from talking via a hands-free device. The penalty for violating the ban is a fine of $50 and one point against the offender’s license.
  • Illinois: All drivers are banned from talking on a hand-held cell phone. School bus drivers and all drivers under 19 years-old are also banned from talking via a hands-free device. The penalty for violating this ban is a fine of $75 for a first offense, $100 for a second offense and $125 for a third offense. Court fees are not included in these figures and will also apply.
  • New York: All drivers are banned from talking on a hand-held cell phone. No ban on hands-free talking for any driver. Depending on the severity of the incident, violating the ban can result in a fine of up to $200, up to five points against the offender’s license and a $93 surcharge.
  • Texas: School bus drivers who transport children under 17 years old and all drivers under 18 years-old are banned from talking on a hand-held or hands-free cell phone. No ban in place for other drivers, except in school zones where hand-held usage is prohibited. Violating this ban could result in a fine of up to $200 for each offense and may result in license revocation.
  • Wisconsin: All drivers are banned from talking on a hand-held cell phone in work zones. All drivers with a learner or intermediate license are banned from talking via a hand-held or hands-free device in all situations. The penalty for violating the ban is a fine of up to $641.50 (including court costs) and four points against the offender’s license.

The information provided here is valid as of 2019. As cell phone laws are constantly evolving and being established in new areas, it is essential that you refer to your state driving manual or the DMV website for accurate and up-to-date information.

Even if the law in your state does not prohibit you from using a cell phone while driving, you should avoid doing so. The distracting effects of carrying out a phone conversation while driving are many and dangerous, as discussed below.

Losing focus while driving

Any engagement with your cell phone (or any other electronic device) while driving will divert your attention away from the road and increase your chances of being involved in an accident. Even reaching to press a button on a dash-mounted cell phone will use up some mental focus that would otherwise be directed at the road. With less mental energy spent on the driving task, you are more likely to miss a potential hazard or respond to changes in the roadway environment inappropriately.

By far the most dangerous thing you can do with a cell phone is converse while driving. Sure, talking to somebody via a hands-free set is considerably less risky than hand-held operation, though it is the conversation itself that is the problem as far as mental focus is concerned. Talking to somebody uses up a great deal of cognitive power, as you process what is being said and formulate a response. It is impossible to be fully attentive to the roadway and the task of driving while chatting on a cell phone.

Peripheral vision limitations

As previously discussed in “The Attentive Driver”, good peripheral vision is essential to drivers, as it allows them to gather visual information without directly focusing on an object. Unfortunately, several recent studies have indicated that using a cell phone while driving can limit your peripheral vision.

Interestingly, the information you receive while talking on a cell phone seems to create mental imagery that somewhat replaces or “blocks” the visual information which you would usually receive peripherally. Any reduction in peripheral vision will make you less aware of your surroundings and more susceptible to being caught off-guard by a hazard to the side of your vehicle.

Emotional fluctuations

Even the most mundane of telephone conversations will distract you from the mental task of driving. Imagine how dangerous it would be if the conversation you have elicits some kind of emotional response. In an instant, one phone call could leave you feeling angry, sad, anxious, excited or otherwise worked up to the degree that you cannot fully concentrate on driving.

This is one of the reasons why you definitely should not drive if you are awaiting urgent news or dealing with an emergency. Even if you do not receive the call you are expecting, you will be too distracted by the situation to focus on driving safely.

The after-effect

The threat posed by talking on your cell phone while driving lasts beyond the duration of the phone call itself. For several minutes after you have hung up, you will still be at greater risk of having an accident or collision. The research conducted on this issue seems to suggest that drivers remain distracted by the content of the telephone call even after the conversation has ended.

A relatively conscientious motorist may end a phone call as they approach a busy street, complex intersection, highway entrance ramp or some other situation that requires full concentration, believing that their focus will once again be totally devoted to driving as soon as they hang up the phone. In fact, their driving ability will still be partially impaired by the after-effect of the phone call. As all road environments have the potential to change from “simple and safe” to “complex and dangerous” at any time, there is no safe time to talk on the phone while driving.

Hands-free devices

Let’s talk about hands-free devices. Many drivers mistakenly believe that talking on the phone while driving is safe if they do so via a hands-free device. While this is arguably safer than holding your cell phone, talking hands-free still significantly increases the risk of being involved in an accident or collision. Here’s why:

  • While mentally focused on the conversation you are having, you may fail to absorb important visual details about the roadway.
  • The sound-quality of hands-free calls is often poor, therefore having the conversation could require more concentration than an ordinary call.
  • The surest way to increase danger is to falsely believe you are safe. Drivers talking on a hands-free cell phone are unlikely to notice the effects of distraction until it’s too late.

Exceptional circumstances

Cell phone laws in most states permit motorists to make cell phone calls while driving under “exceptional circumstances”. This would be any emergency in which not using your cell phone would increase the danger for yourself or someone else. For instance, if you need to call the police, an ambulance or roadside assistance. However, even in these situations, you must pull over before placing the call if you can safely do so.

Keep in mind that the legality of the act does not make talking on the cell phone while driving any safer; you will still be at greater risk of being involved in a collision. Drivers should only use their cell phones while driving in real emergencies when their safety or another person’s safety is immediately threatened.

Beating the distraction

Removing temptation is by far the most effective way to eliminate the risk of distraction posed by cell phones. If your phone is switched on and within your reach, you will be extremely tempted to answer any calls which come through. Even if you ignore a call, the ring itself may startle you and distract you from driving.  The safest thing to do is switch your phone off or put it on silent and make sure it is out of arm’s reach.

If you need to make or accept an important call, find somewhere to pull over and have the conversation by the roadside. Remember that the road’s shoulder is not a place to sit and have a chat unless the phone call is an emergency matter.

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