Universal distracted driving laws

Universal distracted driving laws prohibit all drivers from texting or talking on a cell phone while driving. Laws may target both texting and talking, or only one. Universal laws restrict all drivers, while targeted laws restrict teenage or novice drivers (McCartt 2014). Laws may allow dialing, hands-free use, or talking while the car is stopped in traffic or at an intersection, and generally allow cell phone use during an emergency. Distracted driving occurs when drivers use cell phones or turn their attention to activities other than driving. Risk of crashes may increase when drivers reach for, dial, or answer a cell phone (IIHS-Distracted driving). Researchers estimate that nationwide, 472,500 drivers talked on handheld phones while driving at any given daytime moment in 2018 (NHTSA-Device use 2019). Young drivers are more likely to talk on cell phones than older drivers, and much more likely to manipulate handheld devices (NHTSA-Device use 2019); in a 2019 national youth survey, 39% of high school respondents reported sending a text or email while driving in the past 30 days (CDC MMWR-Yellman 2020). 

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Reduced distracted driving

  • Reduced emergency room visits

  • Reduced hospital utilization

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Reduced crashes

  • Reduced fatal and non-fatal injuries

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that universal handheld cellphone use bans for all drivers can reduce handheld phone conversations while driving in teens and adults (McCartt 2014, NHTSA 2014Rudisill 2019Rudisill 2017), particularly with highly visible enforcement (NHTSA 2014, NHTSA-Cosgrove 2010, NHTSA-Chaudhary 2015). Universal texting bans can reduce crash-related medical use among adult drivers (Ferdinand 2019*, Ferdinand 2015). Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects, particularly on crashes and fatalities (McCartt 2014, Ehsani 2016*).

Statewide universal texting bans reduce motor vehicle crash-related ED visits and hospitalizations after implementation (Ferdinand 2019*, Ferdinand 2015); however, such bans do not appear to change hospitalization rates among drivers under 22 years old (Ferdinand 2015). Universal handheld cellphone use bans may reduce phone conversations for drivers under 25 years old (Rudisill 2017, Zhu 2016, Rudisill 2018b*).

While some studies indicate universal texting bans may reduce texting while driving for some groups in some circumstances (Rudisill 2015*, Rudisill 2019, Qiao 2016), other studies do not (Rudisill 2018b*, Ehsani 2016*, McCartt 2014). Effects of universal distracted driving laws on fatal and non-fatal crashes are mixed (Dong 2017b*, Ehsani 2014*, Ehsani 2016*, McCartt 2014, NHTSA-Chaudhary 2015). A study suggests that universal handheld cellphone use bans may reduce non-alcohol-related driver fatalities, but universal texting bans may not (Rudisill 2018a*). Distracted driving laws aimed at teenage cell phone use do not appear to reduce teen drivers’ use of cell phones (McCartt 2014, Ehsani 2016*, Qiao 2016).

Rigorous primary enforcement, tv, radio, and online media campaigns, and public education are recommended best practices to increase awareness of and compliance with universal distracted driving laws (NHTSA 2014, NHTSA-Chaudhary 2015, Chase 2014, Sherin 2014*, Gormley 2015*, Delgado 2016). Technology-based practices, such as using a texting radar gun, are recommended to identify violations of age- or texting-targeted laws (Gormley 2015*).

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

As of October 2020, talking on a handheld cell phone while driving is prohibited for all drivers in 24 states and Washington DC, and cell phone use is banned for novice or young drivers in 37 states and Washington DC. Forty-eight states and Washington DC ban texting while driving for all drivers (IIHS-Distracted driving). However, twenty-five states and Washington DC allow hands-free cell phone use while driving (PEW-Bergal 2020).

Implementation Resources

IIHS-Distracted driving - Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI). Distracted driving.

NHTSA-Distraction - National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Distracted driving.

CDC-Distracted driving - Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Distracted driving.

GHSA-Distracted driving - Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). Distracted driving.

NHTSA-Chaudhary 2012 - Chaudhary N, Casanova-Powell T, Cosgrove L, Reagan I, Williams A. Evaluation of NHTSA distracted driving demonstration projects in Connecticut and New York (Report No. DOT HS 811 635). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), US Department of Transportation (US DOT); 2012.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

McCartt 2014 - McCartt AT, Kidd DG, Teoh ER. Driver cellphone and texting bans in the United States: Evidence of effectiveness. Annals of Advances in Automotive Medicine. 2014;58:99-114.

NHTSA 2014 - National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Distracted driving high-visibility enforcement demonstrations in California and Delaware. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation (US DOT); 2014.

Rudisill 2019 - Rudisill TM, Zhu M, Chu H. Association between cellphone use while driving legislation and self-reported behaviour among adult drivers in USA: A cross-sectional study. BMJ Open. 2019;9(2):1-8.

Rudisill 2017 - Rudisill TM, Zhu M. Hand-held cell phone use while driving legislation and observed driver behavior among population sub-groups in the United States. BMC Public Health. 2017;17(437).

NHTSA-Cosgrove 2010 - Cosgrove L, Chaudhary N, Roberts S. High visibility enforcement demonstration programs in Connecticut and New York reduce hand-held phone use. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), US Department of Transportation (US DOT); 2010.

NHTSA-Chaudhary 2015 - Chaudhary NK, Connolly J, Tison J, Solomon M, Elliott K. Evaluation of the NHTSA distracted driving high-visibility enforcement demonstration projects in California and Delaware. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; 2015.

Ferdinand 2019* - Ferdinand AO, Aftab A, Akinlotan MA. Texting-while-driving bans and motor vehicle crash-related emergency department visits in 16 US states: 2007-2014. American Journal of Public Health. 2019;109(5):748-754.

Ferdinand 2015 - Ferdinand AO, Menachemi N, Blackburn JL, et al. The impact of texting bans on motor vehicle crash-related hospitalizations. American Journal of Public Health. 2015;105(5):859-865.

Ehsani 2016* - Ehsani JP, Ionides E, Klauer SG, Perlus JG, Gee BT. Effectiveness of cell phone restrictions for young drivers: Review of the evidence. Transportation Research Record. 2016;2602:35-42.

Zhu 2016 - Zhu M, Rudisill TM, Heeringa S, Swedler D, Redelmeier DA. The association between handheld phone bans and the prevalence of handheld phone conversations among young drivers in the United States. Annals of Epidemiology. 2016;26(12):833-837.e1.

Rudisill 2018b* - Rudisill TM, Smith G, Chu H, Zhu M. Cellphone legislation and self-reported behaviors among subgroups of adolescent US drivers. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2018;62(5):618-625.

Rudisill 2015* - Rudisill TM, Zhu M. The association between states’ texting regulations and the prevalence of texting while driving among US high school students. Annals of Epidemiology. 2015;25(12):888-893.

Qiao 2016 - Qiao N, Bell TM. State all-driver distracted driving laws and high school students’ texting while driving behavior. Traffic Injury Prevention. 2016;17(1):5-8.

Dong 2017b* - Dong C, Nambisan SS, Clarke DB, Sun J. Exploring the effects of state highway safety laws and sociocultural characteristics on fatal crashes. Traffic Injury Prevention. 2017;18(3).

Ehsani 2014* - Ehsani JP, Bingham CR, Ionides E, Childers D. The impact of Michigan’s text messaging restriction on motor vehicle crashes. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2014;54(5):S68-S74.

Rudisill 2018a* - Rudisill TM, Chu H, Zhu M. Cell phone use while driving laws and motor vehicle driver fatalities: Differences in population subgroups and location. Annals of Epidemiology. 2018;28(10):730-735.

Chase 2014 - Chase JDC. US state and federal laws targeting distracted driving. Annals of Advances in Automotive Medicine. 2014;58:84-98.

Sherin 2014* - Sherin KM, Lowe AL, Harvey BJ, et al. Preventing texting while driving: A statement of the American College of Preventive Medicine. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2014;47(5):681-688.

Gormley 2015* - Gormley E. Indiana’s texting-while-driving ban: Why is it not working and how could it be better? Indiana Law Journal. 2016;91(5):87-104.

Delgado 2016 - Delgado MK, Wanner KJ, McDonald C. Adolescent cellphone use while driving: An overview of the literature and promising future directions for prevention. Media and Communication. 2016;4(3):79-89.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

IIHS-Distracted driving - Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI). Distracted driving.

PEW-Bergal 2020 - Bergal J. Three more states say yes to hands-free laws for drivers. The Pew Charitable Trusts (PEW), Stateline article. 2020.

Date Last Updated