Legislative Overview: Distracted Driving

By Danny Restivo

During the holiday season millions of Americans hit the road to see loved ones located across the country. As they drove with family and friends on packed interstates, they likely had their cellphone within reach. Unfortunately, with the pervasive nature of today’s communication technology, many drivers became distracted while driving.

Whether it’s responding to a text, tweet or an email, distracted drivers pose a significant danger on the road.  In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said more than 600,000 people used or manipulated devices while driving. Five years later, as mobile devices and their applications become more ubiquitous, the number has increased, especially among teenagers and young adults. In 2013, more than a third of distracted drivers involved in fatal accidents were under 30, while more than half reported using cellphones.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight people are killed and 1,161 are injured in distracted driving incidents every day. In 2014, there were 3,179 deaths caused by distracted drivers, while more than 430,000 were injured. In 2013, more than 3,100 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver. Because many people don’t admit they were distracted while driving, recovering accurate statistics remains challenging.

Whether it’s texting, eating, or mapping directions, studies have demonstrated that distractions can significantly increase the likelihood of an accident. Unfortunately, no breathalyzer-like test exists for cell phone use while driving (although New York has proposed new technology to do so) but law enforcement officials and policy advisors have zeroed in on cell phones to make roads safer.

Based on studies by the National Safety Council, 1.6 million traffic-accidents (out of 2.4 million) are caused by distracted drivers. The number of people killed increased seven percent to 35,092 from 2014 to 2015, making 2015 the deadliest traffic year since 2008, according to the NHTSA. Compared to traffic accidents in other industrialized countries, the United States is one of the deadliest places to drive, as well as the most costliest.

In 2013, traffic deaths cost $44 billion in medical and work loss costs, according to the CDC. The NHTSA report said that traffic accidents in the United States totaled $871 billion in 2014 in economic loss and societal harms, with distracted drivers causing more than $100 billion.

“No amount of money can replace the life of a loved one, or stem the suffering associated with motor vehicle crashes,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement when the report was released. “While the economic and societal costs of crashes are staggering, today’s report clearly demonstrates that investments in safety are worth every penny used to reduce the frequency and severity of these tragic events.”

In 2014, deadly accidents cost Texas and California nearly $5 billion, each. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania, New York and Florida all paid more than $1.6 billion. In light of these statistics, states have implemented restrictions aimed at keeping drivers focused on the roads, instead of their phones.Distracted Driving.png

Here’s a list of five states with some of the highest accident costs, along with their respective distracted driving laws.

California-$4.89 billion

Governor Jerry Brown signed assembly bill 1785 into law in September. The law requires drivers to mount their smartphone on their windshield or dashboard. The law says they can only use them for things that require the “motion of a single swipe or tap of the driver’s finger.” The new law takes effect on January 1, 2017, with a $20 fine for the first offense and a $50 fine for every subsequent violation.

Texting and speaking on the phone is illegal in California except with a hands free device. However, the law has done little to curb cell phone usage while driving. A study by the California Office of Traffic Safety released a report in June showing nearly 13 percent of the state’s drivers were seen talking, texting or using a cellphone in some manner, which is up from 9 percent in 2015.

Texas-$4.89 Billion

Texas remains one of four states without a statewide ban on texting and driving (Missouri, Montana and Arizona have no bans, while a study by AT&T showed these states have a 17-percent higher rate of texting while driving). However, while 95 of 254 counties have local ordinances that ban texting while driving, the state has rejected proposals making a state law against it.  In 2011, former Republican Governor Rick Perry vetoed a bill that banned texting while driving, which had passed both chambers. Similar legislation was brought forth in 2013 and 2015. While both bills passed the house, they failed in the senate (it failed by one vote in 2015). Senate Bill 31, which is sponsored by Sen. Judith Saffirini (D), makes texting illegal unless the vehicle is stopped. It’s expected to receive a vote in early 2017.

Florida-$3.02 billion

 The state legislature approved a bill that bans texting while driving in 2013. However, there is no handheld ban, or any prohibitions against talking on the phone. Furthermore, drivers cannot be pulled over for distracted driving. They can only get pulled over for another offense before a secondary citiation for distracted driving gets issued.

In April, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported that distracted driving caused more than 45,700 crashes and 200 deaths in 2015. From 2013 to 2015, the state issued 3,488 citations for distracted driving. As a result, several state legislators have announced plans to introduce proposals that would strengthen laws against texting while driving in 2017.

New York-$1.69 billion

 The Empire State has a primary law ban on handheld devices and texting while driving. Under State law, a first offense results in a fine of $50 to $200, and increases to $250 after the second offense within 18 months. Subsequent offenses can result in fines up to $450. For young drivers with a permit, a citation equals a 120-day driving suspension. If there is a second suspension within six months, that suspension increases to one year.

In 2016, state senator Terrence Murphy (R) introduced a bill that would allow officers to use a device called the textalyzer. Like a breathalyzer, the device can check to see if a phone was being used during the time a crash occurred. Consent must be received before the device gets used. The proposal has garnered criticism for its potential privacy violations, but its prospects for reducing accident rates remains promising. The bill (SB 6325A) currently sits in committee.

Pennsylvania- $1.60 billion

 The Keystone State has a primary law that bans texting while driving, but no such law exists for cellphone use or handheld devices. In November, Democratic Governor Tom Wolfe signed a bill that increases penalties for texting while driving. Daniel’s Law (HB 2025) gives judges the option to increase sentencing by five more years for a person convicted in a fatal accident stemming from texting. In 2015, Pennsylvania reported 14,800 crashes and 66 deaths from cellphones usage while driving.

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