The war on distracted driving has taken a decidedly financial shift in 2013.
- More states are adopting distracted driving laws, spurred by the prospect of millions of dollars from Congress to help enforce them.
- The laws are much stricter than before. In a growing number of states, restrictions apply even while the car is stopped. Fines are steeper, and texting can be considered an aggravating factor in auto accidents. Convictions put points on driving records and can lead to license suspension.
- Infractions now have insurance consequences in many states, extending the financial hurt for years.
Everyone knows that texting and driving is a bad idea, but most drivers still ignore the dangers. A 2011 AAA survey found that 94 percent of drivers agree that texting behind the wheel is dangerous, but a whopping 33 percent admitted to texting while driving in the previous month.
The federal government is handing out money to states that start taking texting behind the wheel more seriously. That cash, along with rising highway death rates, has prompted a number of states to jump-start efforts to pass or toughen their texting laws.
In the last two weeks, Hawaii and Florida have adopted statewide texting bans, joining 39 other states with laws on the books. Connecticut is considering making a distracted-driving ticket a moving violation. A total ban on handheld devices is headed to the governor's desk in Illinois.
The carrot … and the folks who hate carrots
The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) provides $17.5 million in total to states that have enacted and are enforcing anti-distracted driving laws. In order to qualify, the state law must:
- Make distracted driving a primary offense. That is, the officer can stop you for that reason alone.
- Ban use of electronic devices even while a vehicle is stopped at a traffic light.
- Issue a fine on the first violation and increased fines afterward.
- Include distracted driving issues as part of the driver's license examination.
AAA expects all remaining states to consider texting-while-driving legislation in 2013, and a number of states to strengthen their existing texting laws.
The driving public seems more than willing to go along; 72 percent of the 1,000 drivers surveyed by CarInsurance.com supported harsher treatment for texting than for speeding. (See "Survey: Drop hammer on texters, drunks.")
Jennifer Smith, executive director of Distraction Advocate Network, says getting legislators to listen to their constituents is also a challenge.
"The public is often showing support for texting bans at 95 percent approval rates and still legislators are reluctant to pass these bills," Smith says. "It's important they understand that texting bans are not a violation of anyone's rights or liberties; they are about public safety, and the public approves of the laws."
Texas is a prime example of the difficulties the laws can face.
A statewide texting ban for the Lone Star state won House backing in April but stalled in the Senate May 27, where the chairman refused to bring it to a vote because a veto was likely. A similar bill made it through the legislature two years ago, only to die on the desk of Gov. Rick Perry, who claimed the bill was micromanaging the behavior of adults.
Insurance rates may go up
Tougher laws can result in higher insurance premiums. As texting violations become primary offenses and are classified as a moving violation, convictions will show up on a driver's record and cause a rate increase.
CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner says that a texting ticket could push rates up 10 to 20 percent on a first offense and as much as 40 percent for a second or third offense.
For example, a 25-year-old Baltimore man driving a 2012 Ford Fusion with comprehensive, collision and liability coverage would pay about $2,366 a year with a clean record. With two moving violations, the cheapest quote we found was $3,820.*
States that make first-offense texting a moving violation include Alabama, Colorado, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin. Washington, D.C., does, too. Repeat offenses are moving violations in New Jersey, Nevada and West Virginia.
Maryland and Washington, D.C., ramp up the points if the texting caused an accident.
*Lowest rate found in CarInsurance.com comparison-shopping tool for ZIP code 21216, 25-year-old single male, good credit, driving 2012 Ford Fusion 12,000 miles a year; $100,000 bodily injury liability ($300,000 per accident); $50,000 property damage liability; $500 deductible comprehensive and collision.