Driver handheld device use restrictions

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Driver handheld device use restrictions are policies that limit the use of handheld devices, such as cell phones, while driving. Studies have shown that as texting and cell phone use have increased over the years, automobile accidents as a result of distracted driving have also increased[1]. In an effort to address this public concern, many legislators have enacted policies to deter drivers from using hand-held devices while operating a vehicle. In 2007, Washington became the first state to pass a ban on texting while driving. Now, 46 states have passed similar laws banning texting while driving. Fourteen states have laws prohibiting all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. Since these hand-held device restrictions are typically state laws, they vary widely in their extent and enforcement. Although no state bans all cell phone use for all drivers, 38 states ban cell phone use by novice drivers and 20 states restrict school bus drivers from using a cell phone while driving. In some states, the distracted driving bans are primary enforcement laws, meaning that an officer can give a citation without the driver committing any other traffic violation. Other states, however, only have these bans as secondary enforcement laws, and offenders would need to first be cited for another traffic violation. Although most hand-held device use restrictions are enacted at the state level, there is a federal ban on cell phone use for commercial motor vehicle drivers.



Conceptual Example

A state has noticed a recent increase in accidents resulting from distracted driving. In many of these accidents, drivers were known to have been using their cell phone while operating the vehicle. To combat this threat to public safety, the state has decided to restrict the use of handheld devices for all drivers. This ban decreases the likelihood that drivers will be distracted while driving and therefore decreases the likelihood that drivers will get in an accident, injuring both themselves, passengers, and other drivers. As a result of this ban, there are fewer accidents resulting from distracted driving and an overall increase in public safety.

Specific Example

In 2010, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) created a policy restricting all commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers from any use of hand-held mobile devices. The ban explicitly prohibits drivers from reaching for, holding, dialing, texting, or reading from any hand-held mobile devices while driving. Drivers are permitted to use the hands-free function of their phones and press a single button in order to initiate, answer, or end a call, but only if they do not have to reach for the phone. If found in violation of the policy, drivers must pay a fine of up to $2,750. A driver can also be revoked of their CMV driver qualification from FMCSA or the State if they violate the law multiple times[2][3].



Tradeoffs of implementing this policy may include:

  1. Difficulties with identifying violators
  2. May require additional police time and/or officers
  3. If ban is only on handheld device use, it may lead to an increase in alternatives, such as hands-free devices, which are not necessarily any more safe
  4. Fails to address other distracted driving habits (eating, drinking, etc.)
  5. Restricts driver's ability to communicate with those outside the vehicle, reducing consequent quality of life and productivity benefits
Compatibility Assessment

Compatibility Assessment.png

If answered yes, the following questions indicate superior conditions under which the policy is more likely to be appropriate:

  1. Is there a public safety concern for automobile accidents?
  2. Are a significant number of accidents caused by distracted driving?
  3. Has handheld device use been involved in a significant number of distracted driving accidents?
  4. Would a restriction on handheld device use actually change drivers' behavior?
  5. Is there sufficient police force to enforce the restriction?


Assuming that a jurisdiction has decided to adopt the policy, the following questions will need to be answered when determining how to implement this policy:

  1. To whom should the ban on handheld devices apply?
    1. The restriction could apply only to a group that legislators feel are under significant risk of distracted driving incidents as a result of handheld device use (novice drivers, bus drivers, commercial vehicle drivers, etc.)
    2. The ban could apply to all drivers.
  2. What kind of handheld device use should the restriction ban?
    1. The regulation could be fairly broad and prohibit all handheld device use.
    2. The policy could be rather specific and only restrict certain uses such as text messaging.
  3. What kind of enforcement law will the restriction be?
    1. The restriction could be a primary enforcement law, in which case officers can give a citation without the driver committing any other traffic violation.
    2. The ban could be a secondary enforcement law, in which case the driver would need to be stopped for another reason first.
  4. How will the restriction be enforced?
    1. Drivers could be monitored by police force monitoring for speeding violators.
    2. A police force could be sent out to specifically monitor for handheld device use.
  5. How will violators be punished for non-compliance?
    1. Drivers who are caught using a handheld device are typically issued a ticket and must pay a fine as determined by the jurisdiction.
    2. In some cases, drivers may have their license revoked for violating the restriction a certain number of times.







  • Constituent Groups - Parents and Parent Associations. Assumption: Restrictions could apply just to novice drivers. Parents would likely support this as it is an effort to keep new drivers' distractions to a minimum and increase their safety.
  • Advocates - Bus Safety. Assumption: Several handheld device use restrictions are specifically for bus drivers. Because buses carry many people, it is important that their drivers focus on the road in order to keep all passengers safe.
  • Electeds - State and Provincial Executives. Assumption: Electeds want to ensure the safety of their constituents, and a policy restricting drivers from handheld device use is likely to reduce the risk of automobile accidents from distracted driving.
  • Advocates - Pedestrian Safety. Assumption: Distracted drivers pose a threat to pedestrians who may be hit as a result of a driver not paying attention to their surroundings. Pedestrian safety advocates would therefore support a restriction on driver handheld device use as it would likely decrease their chances of being struck by a distracted driver.


  • Government Agencies - Police. Assumption: It is possible that police officers would oppose a restriction on driver handheld device use because they would bear the burden of enforcing it, which has been noted as a common difficulty with this policy.
  • Labor Unions - Truck Drivers. Assumption: Truck drivers may be opposed to a restriction on handheld device use because it severely limits their ability to communicate as much of their time is spent on the road.
  • Labor Unions - Bus Drivers. Similar to truck drivers, bus drivers may oppose a strict handheld device use restriction because it severely limits their ability to communicate since a lot of their time is spent driving.
  • Labor Unions - Taxi Drivers. Like truck drivers and bus drivers, taxi drivers spend a majority of their time driving. A complete ban on handheld device use would severely limit their ability to communicate.




  • U.S. State and Federal Laws Targeting Distracted Driving. Chase, J.D. Catherine. (2014). Annals of Advances in Automotive Medicine, Vol. 58: 84-98. This article contends that jurisdictions should use the “three E’s” approach when implementing driver handheld device use restrictions: Enactment of a law, Education of the public about the law, and rigorous Enforcement of the law.
  • Trends in Fatalities From Distracted Driving in the United States, 1999 to 2008. Wilson, Fernando A. Stimpson, Jim P. (2010). American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 100: 2213-2219. This article explores the relationship between increasing cell phone use and texting volumes and distracted driving accidents resulting in fatalities.
  • Long-Term Effects of Handheld Cell Phone Laws on Driver Handheld Cell Phone Use. McCartt, Anne T. Hellinga, Laurie A. Strouse, Laura M. Farmer, Charles M. (2010). Traffic Injury Prevention, Vol. 11: 133-141. doi:10.1080/15389580903515427. This article reports on a study that found handheld cell phone restriction laws do result in decreased cell phone use, even though there was low chance that drivers would actually receive violation citations.
  • Effect of North Carolina’s restriction on teenage driver cell phone use two years after implementation. Goodwin, Arthur H. O’Brien, Natalie P. Foss, Robert D. (2012). Accident Analysis & Prevention, Vol. 48: 363-367. This study examined the results of North Carolina’s teenage driver cell phone restriction, finding that cell phone use had decreased. However, it also noted that the likelihood that teenage drivers were using handheld devices for reasons other than talking on the phone had increased.
  • A Revised Economic Analysis of Restrictions on the Use of Cell Phones While Driving. Cohen, Joshua T. Graham, John D. (2003). Risk Analysis, Vol 23: 5-17. This study assessed the costs and benefits of cell phone restrictions for drivers, finding that the value of preventing distracted driving accidents cause by cell phone use is approximately equal to the value of the calls that would be eliminated if a restriction was adopted.


  1. [1]. Wilson, Fernando A. Stimpson, Jim P. (2010). "Trends in Fatalities From Distracted Driving in the United States, 1999 to 2008." American Journal of Public Health. Pp. 2213-2219.
  2. [2] Ferro, Anne S. (2010) "Limiting the Use of Wireless Communication Devices." Federal Register Pp. 59118-59136.
  3. [3] U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. (2012) "Mobile Phone Restrictions Fact Sheet." U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
  4. [4] Stim, Rich. (n.d.) "California Cell Phone & Texting and Driving Laws." Nolo.
  5. [5] Stim, Rich. (n.d.) "Illinois Text Messaging and Cell Phone Laws." Nolo.
  6. [6] New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. (n.d.) "Cell phone use & texting." New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.
  7. [7] Metropolitan Police Department. (n.d.) "Distracted Driving Safety Act of 2004: restrictions on mobile phone use while driving." Metropolitan Police Department.
  8. [8] Stim, Rich. (n.d.) "Washington DC Cell Phone & Texting and Driving Laws." Nolo.
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