Many people have grown accustomed to using their cell phones constantly throughout the day. Distracted driving accidents have become just as common as drunk driving accidents, leading lawmakers across the country to impose rules against texting or otherwise using a cell phone while driving. These rules include exceptions for emergency calls and often allow the use of a hands-free device.
States that have prohibited the use of handheld cell phones behind the wheel include New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, California, Oregon, and Washington. Violating the cell phone rule often is a primary offense, which means that an officer can stop you if you are not committing any other violation. Even if your state does not prohibit the use of handheld cell phones, it likely prohibits sending text messages and makes this a primary offense. Additional laws may apply to distracted driving activities generally, prohibiting drivers from engaging in any activity that undermines their ability to drive safely.
Enhanced Cell Phone Rules
Drivers under the age of 18 and drivers who are just learning to drive may be subject to stricter rules. They may be completely prohibited from using a cell phone or other electronic device behind the wheel, even a hands-free device. Violating this rule usually is a primary offense. Also, school bus drivers often are barred completely from using their cell phones while driving passengers.
Some cities and other local governments have enacted strict rules on cell phone use while driving that go beyond the state rules. In other cases, a state has specifically prohibited local governments from imposing these rules.
Cell Phone Rules in California
California provides a useful example of the direction that these laws often take. The state does not allow a driver to text or use a wireless device behind the wheel. There are exceptions for emergency services personnel who are operating an emergency vehicle, as well as some situations involving a mounted GPS. A driver also can use a system that was installed in the vehicle by the manufacturer. A violation can subject a driver to a $20 fine for a first offense and a $50 fine for a second or subsequent offense. However, a driver should be aware that assessments added to the fine may increase this amount to $150 for a first offense and $250 for a later offense.
Moreover, drivers may not use handheld cell phones, although passengers may. The rule covers anyone on a California road, including people who are not residents of California. It includes exceptions for emergency calls, people operating emergency vehicles, and drivers on private property. A violation is a primary offense, and the fines are the same as for texting and driving. You will not receive a point on your driving record for a violation.
An adult driver generally can use a hands-free device in California, as long as they do not cover both ears. Drivers under 18 cannot use a hands-free device unless they are making an emergency call. The fines are the same as above, but using a hands-free phone is a secondary offense. This means that an officer cannot stop you if you are not committing any other violation. If they do stop you, they can add this violation to your record.