Driver distraction caused by the use mobile phones behind the wheel has become a hot button issue, with no less than U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood making it a huge priority. Local and state legislatures continue to push to pass laws addressing the use of handheld phones by drivers. Yet, as of August 2011, only 9 states and the District of Columbia have banned driving while talking on a handheld phone, although more states have laws aimed at "novice drivers" (usually those under a certain age or with less than a full driver license) and school bus drivers.
But the explosive growth of text messaging has shifted policymakers' and the public's attention towards the potential greater danger of driving while texting (DWT). President Barack Obama even signed an executive order effective December 30, 2009 requiring all federal employees not to text while driving government-owned vehicles or with government-owned equipment, and in January 2010 the U.S. Department of Transportation Department announced a federal ban on texting by commercial drivers of interstate buses and large trucks over 10,000 pounds.
The District of Columbia and over 20 states already ban DWT for all drivers with another seven states banning the practice for young drivers.
Vehicle manufacturers are also starting to address the issue. For example, Ford's Sync system can read aloud incoming text message and even translate commonly used emoticons and shorthand phrases such as "lol." The system also allows sending a series of canned responses, like "Can't Talk Right Now" or "Call Me Later."
Several cities, including Chicago and Detroit, have enacted their own laws against using a handheld phone while driving, but nine states have "preemption laws" that prohibit local governments from putting such laws on the books. Some of the various hands-free cell phone laws are primary violations, meaning you can be pulled over only for that particular infraction, while others are secondary, meaning you can be ticketed for it only if the police pull you over for another reason.
Several studies -- and just plain common sense -- tell us that it's best not to use a phone at all while behind the wheel. But if you have to talk on the phone while driving, make sure you know the law and do it only when it's safe, and while using a hands-free device.
Follow the link to the Governors Highway Safety Association website. It has compiled a chart to help you keep abreast of the laws that may apply on your daily commute and distant travels. And since we expect hands-free laws to regularly change, check this page often -- and always drive safely, with both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.
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