How Effective Are Texting and Driving Laws

Missouri has some of the most lenient distracted driving laws in the country. For example, texting while driving is only illegal for drivers under the age of 21 and for commercial drivers. All other drivers are allowed to compose, read, and send text messages while driving as well as use handheld phones for talking.

Despite passing the Missouri House of Representatives in early 2017, a proposed ban on texting while driving has failed to make any progress in the Senate. If Missouri is able to pass a ban on texting and driving, will it be effective in reducing traffic deaths? We take a look at data from other states to find out.

Are Texting and Driving Bans Effective?

According to a study conducted by the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), certain types of legislation are more effective at preventing traffic crashes and deaths than others. A study published in 2014 found that primary texting bans that apply to all age groups resulted in a 3 percent reduction in traffic fatalities. Primary texting bans aimed exclusively at young drivers were the most effective at reducing fatalities among the 15-21 age group, with an 11 percent reduction in distracted-driving deaths.

The most effective law for drivers over the age of 21 was found to be a ban on all hand-held devices. The reason for this is likely that, while teenaged drivers frequently text and drive, older drivers use their phones for other purposes behind the wheel, so hands-free laws are most effective with that age group.

What Makes a Law Effective?

Based on the UAB study, in order for a texting and driving ban to be effective, it should have certain legal elements. In general, these statutes have to have enough teeth to really make a difference.

For a texting ban to serve as a deterrent, it should do the following:

  • Be a primary offense. A primary offense is one for which a police officer can stop a driver. Some states make cellphone bans a secondary offense, meaning motorists can only be ticketed for using a cellphone if they’re being stopped for speeding or some other primary offense.
  • Target all use of any hand-held device. When a ban allows certain usages, it’s easier for drivers to talk their way out of tickets. For example, some states allow drivers to dial and hold the phone while talking on it, opening the door for a driver to claim that’s what they were doing.
  • Apply to all drivers. Across-the-board bans make it easier for traffic police to identify abusers and pull them over. If an officer has to guess at the age of a driver he sees texting before pulling him or her over, that driver has a better chance of getting away with it. This makes even targeted laws less effective.
  • Come with costly penalties. When states don’t attach steep fines to an offense, people will decide that it’s worth taking the risk of sending a quick text. A fine of at least $200 sends a message that the state is serious about the law.

Currently, 47 states ban texting and driving for all drivers. Missouri only bans texting for novice drivers. Arizona and Montana have no laws banning texting and driving.

States with bans on the books report mixed success. In Washington, a stricter law making texting and driving a primary offense was rolled out the summer of 2017. In the first few weeks, police actually saw an increase in cellphone use. Citations jumped from 273 the week before the ban went in to effect to 337 the first official week of the ban. The important piece of information to look for in the coming years is whether fatalities caused by distracted driving decrease in states with these bans.

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