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Text Messaging Laws

and the effects of

Texting while Driving

By Rachel Bernstein

October 2009


Image From:



In today’s lifestyle, text messaging is a main form of communication. Most people who own a cell phone revel in the wonders of text messaging: it’s fast and it’s easy. We impulsively respond to that buzz of our phones and often tune out our surroundings. Unfortunately, an overwhelming amount of drivers don’t hesitate to both read and respond to test messages while driving. Recently, many states have taken action and banned the act of text messaging while driving. Other states feel that more evidence is required in order to outlaw such a common act. Despite the existing texting laws, it is difficult to see the effects of this legislation. How dangerous is text messaging? Should more states be passing laws to ban it, or do they have little effect on drivers? This is a hot topic in the news today, and studies are still taking place in order to present more evidence. However, existing research poses that text messaging is comparable to or even more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol.


Why Ban Texting while Driving?

        Since the turn of the millennium, the amount of text messages sent in the United States has grown exponentially. Within just 3 years, the amount of text messages sent per month increased over ten times: 9.8 billion messages in December ’05 to 110.4 billion text messages by December ’08 (Austin, 2009). Due to newer technology, more people are exposed to the text-messaging phenomenon. According to a 2008 poll, 20% of drivers admit to text messaging behind the wheel, and 66% of drivers aging between 18-24 years admit the same (Schulte, 2008). However, it is not just the prevalence of text messaging that is important to understand. The act of driving while texting (DWT) has recently escalated in the causes of high profile accidents. DWT was responsible for the deaths of 25 passengers in the 2008 Chatsworth train collision, in which a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on due the engineer’s inability to react to a red signal while reading a text message (Texting Banned, 2008). Unfortunately, texting while driving is the cause of many more deaths and injuries as well. Thus, text-massaging laws hope to minimize the many motor vehicle accidents due to texting while driving, which could have easily been prevented if texting bans were enforced.


Harms of texting behind the wheel:

        Although a seemingly simple task, driving while texting may be the most death provoking action one can do while driving. The leading factor of car crashes or near-crashes is driver inattention. According to a survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2006, 78% of crashes involved a driver that was distracted within three seconds before an accident. Charlie Klauer, a researcher at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute states, "If a driver's eyes are away from the roadway for two seconds or more in a six-second window, their risk of being involved in a crash is two times higher than an alert driver" (Bruno, 2007). The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute declared that text messaging resulted in the longest duration of “eyes off road time." They found that within 6 seconds, a driver engaging in text is not looking at the road 4.6 of those seconds. To put this into a perspective that we all can relate to, this means that a motorist traveling 55 miles per hour could drive the length of a football field without once looking at the road. This clearly shows how easily texting can increase one’s risk for accidents. Recently, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute demonstrated that truck drivers who partake in text messaging are 23.2 times more likely to crash. If there are laws prohibiting drinking under the influence of alcohol, which increases your risk for crashing approximately 7 times compared to a sober driver, then laws banning texting while driving should be considered extremely serious regulations (Texting increases crash, 2009).


DWT (Driving while texting): New Laws Banning Text Messaging

Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia have banned or in the process of banning text messaging from all drivers. These states include Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and Washington (AAA pushes to ban, 2009). Texting laws come in two forms: primary offenses and secondary offenses. Text messaging as a primary offense means that a police officer can pull a driver over solely for texting. These laws are easier to enforce because police officers can pull over any driver that evinces body language of texting, even if they are not engaging in risky behavior at the moment. Texting as a secondary offense means that a driver can only be fined for text messaging if they are caught committing another misdemeanor. This type of law is difficult to carry out and not very effective, but it is somewhat preventative.

Washington was the first state to ban driving while texting (DWT), and instituted a $101 fine (Bruno, 2007). In New York where DWT is a secondary offense, drivers caught texting must pay a $150 fine. New York’s policy is extremely lenient compared to laws in other states (Haberman, 2009). Oregon is working to increase the DWT fine to $720 in the next year in hopes that such a high-priced fine will dissuade drivers from texting (Howie, C.). Utah has taken this same approach. Drivers in Utah caught texting can be fined $750 and may potentially need to serve 3 months in jail. If DWT causes injury or death, driver may need to pay a $10,000 fine and serve 15 years in prison (Richtel, 2009).

Each state has its own laws and fines regarding texting, but anyone from out of state must follow the laws of the state that they are currently driving in. Additionally, nine states only prohibit texting from drivers under the age of 21 (State Cell Phone, 2009). However, advocates for texting bans hope that more states prohibit texting.


Effects of Laws:

While some states have had difficulty enforcing text-messaging laws, others have found much success. Many people have argued that it is difficult to spot a driver texting if their phone is below the dashboard. However, police officers are trained to spot drivers based on their body language. If a driver’s head is tilted down and their eyes are not focused on the road, they are most likely engaging in text messaging (Habuda & Precious, 2009). Additionally, education is a key component. The more drivers that are aware of new texting laws, the less likely they will be to text while driving. Of all the texting laws instituted so far, California provides evidence of the best success. Laws banning DWT went into effect on January 1, 2009. From January to August, the California Highway Patrol issued 1,061 texting tickets. Before the law became effective, 1.4% of drivers in Orange County were found texting while driving. At the end of the 7 months studied, only .4% of drivers were caught texting. Within just 7 months, driving while texting decline approximately 70% (Falconer, 2009).

        However, many people in states where texting is only a secondary offense feel that the law is ineffective. Even if a cop sees a driving texting, they are not legally permitted to stop the driving from engaging in this dangerous act (Haberman, 2009). Even so, a secondary ban is better than no regulation because its presence in the law will still deter drivers from texting.


Future Legislation:

This past September 2009, The American Automobile Association announced that by 2013, the motor club plans to pass laws to ban texting while drive in all 50 states. Additionally, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety declared the week of October 5, 2009 “Heads Up Driving Week,” in which they encourage all drivers to rid themselves from all distraction. Their motto is “try it for a week, do it for life." Although this is solely a trial, they hope to get a positive response from motorists. Additionally, steps to increase public education on the laws and harms of texting will become more prominent, and driver training and other safety programs will be instituted as well (AAA pushes to ban, 2009).




When thinking about text messaging intervention, there are 3 major aspects to consider: what are the dangers of text messaging, how does DWT compare to DUI, and are text-messaging laws effective. Three different studies were conducted to answer these questions.


Virginia Tech Transportation Institute

In July 2009, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) became one of the first research institutions to provide data on the dangers of texting while driving. Over the course of 18 months, numerous trucks were equipped with video cameras that traced their driving activities for over 6 million miles. Additionally, eye glance analyses were conducted to determine how long and how often the driver looked down at their cell phone. After all the data was accumulated, text messaging posed the greatest danger of all cell phone related tasks, with 23.2 times more risk of crashing a heavy vehicle than a non-distracted driver.  Other data consists of the following:


Although this text messaging data is for Heavy Vehicles and Trucks, the risk for driving while texting in a car is still probably about 20 times more dangerous than an attentive driver. Additionally, the eye glance analysis proved that texting required the driver to remove his eyes from the road for the longest amount of time compared to other mobile activities. Over a 6 second interval, drivers were found to be looking at their phones for 4.6 seconds while texting. This is a serious threat to all drivers on the road.

Text Box: Image from:

When viewing the information provided by the VTTI study, we must acknowledge that the study only tested heavy vehicles. Newspapers and other sources are quick to generalize that texting while driving is 23.2 times more risky for all drivers than non-distracted drivers. We can assume that texting while driving lighter vehicles results in a similar risk, but it was not directly proven by this specific study. However, simulator studies such as the study at the University of Utah found results for light vehicles.  They conducted a similar study in which they used a driving simulator, and found that texting put people at an 8 times greater risk than non-distracted drivers. However, a driving simulator is not the same as actually driving, making the results less than accurate. Interestingly, like the VTTI experiment, this simulator study also found that texting drivers removed their eyes from the road for about 5 seconds in a 6 second interval. Overall, these studies both found texting while driving to be extremely dangerous (Hanowski, 2009).


Monash University Accident Research Centre: The effects of text messaging on young novice driver performance

        The Monash University Accident Research Centre in Australia conducted a study to test the effects of text messaging on young, beginner drivers. Twenty drivers aging between 18 and 21 who had only 6 months or less driving experience were recruited. This experiment group was chosen “given that drivers in this category are more likely than other drivers to use a mobile phone while driving and appear to be more vulnerable to the effects of distraction because of their relative inexperience behind the wheel.” These participants were instructed to drive on a simulated roadway in which various real-life events would occur in order to best represent the situation. These cautions included “stopping at a red light that was initiated when the driver was close to a signalized intersection, three cars following tasks where the driver was required to maintain a distance behind a lead vehicle, two lane changing tasks where the driver was required to change lanes according to signs located at the side of the road, avoiding a pedestrian that was on a collision path with the drivers’ vehicle, and avoiding an oncoming car that turns right in front of the drivers’ vehicle” (Hosking, Young, & Regan, 2006, p. 6). Each driver was asked to partake in two trials: one in which they completed the course with no distractions, and one in which they were both reading and actively texting. Once done with the experiment, they were asked to complete a survey that questioned their self-abilities while driving and texting.

        This simulator driving experience proved that texting is an extremely risky behavior for novice drivers. When the driver completed the trial in which they drove while texting, they took their eyes off the road 400% more compared to their non-distracted trials. These drivers looked away from the roadway both more frequently and for longer intervals of time. Additionally, the drivers unintentionally crossed the lane boundaries 28% more when texting, and incorrectly changed lanes 140% more than the control trial. These lane violations were most likely due to the inability to see signs and the roadway while texting. In order to compensate for their distracted driving, the motorists increased their distance from the car in front of them. However, their speed did not decline. After completing the questionnaire, 95% of participants indicated that they felt their performance decreased while receiving text messages, and 100% of participants felt the same while sending texts.

        Although this experiment only included young novice drivers, it is safe to assume that texting poses a large threat for all drivers. While the risks may not be as high for more experienced drivers, any proven hazardous activity can advocate for a texting ban. All drivers in this experiment acknowledged their performance declination when they engaged in text messaging, yet 66% of young drivers still admit to texting while driving. Like other simulator studies, we must question the validity of the results. Although it has not been proven how accurate simulator studies are, the results still suggest the jeopardy of driving while texting (Hosking, Young, & Regan, 2006).


Car and Driver: Texting While Driving: How Dangerous is it?

Text Box: Image  From:

Car and Driver conducted an experiment that focused on reaction time and compared a non-distracted driver in an older and younger age group to the same drivers while texting, and then while intoxicated. This was the first study in which real cars, instead of simulators, were actually being driven to test the effects of texting. Car and Driver rented 11,800-foot runway at the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport in Oscoda, Michigan to safely test their participants. The goal of the Car and Driver experiment was to display how texting impairs a driver’s abilities on the road. This was done by determining the divers’ reaction times. A light was placed on the windshield, and turned red to simulate the brake lights of a previous car. The subjects in this experiment were equipped with cellular devices that they were familiar with and had a keyboard.  A 22 year old using an iphone represented the young demographic, while a 37 year old using a Samsung Alias represented an older crowd. The driver’s speed, distance, and reaction time was monitored for each trial had the driver respond 5 times to the red light. To prevent error, the slowest reaction time was dropped.

        To get baseline values, both drivers were instructed to drive at 35 mph and then at 70 mph to test their general reaction times. They then repeated the procedure, this time reading a text. Next, they were instructed to type the same message they had previously received while driving. Lastly, both drivers consumed enough alcohol to put them at the illegal intoxication level of .08 percent blood-alcohol content. They then repeated the same task at hand.

        Overall, texting while driving proved to be the most hazardous. For Brown (representing younger drivers), his worst reaction time while texting at 70mph caused him to travel and extra 30 feet while reading a text, and 31 feet while typing on his phone. Interestingly, he only traveled and extra 15 feet while intoxicated. Alterman, who stood for older drivers, drove an extra 70 feet while texting and 36 feet while reading a message. Driving under the influence did not effect him as much, only causing him to travel and extra 4 feet. The average reaction times and extra distances traveled for the drivers at two different speeds resulted as follows:



The Car and Driver experiment was very effective at revealing the dangers of texting while driving, but there are some areas in which their results may be questioned. It is difficult to generalize a population with only two participants. If they were able to generate the same results using a large sample size, their results would be more credible. Additionally, the drivers only needed to concentrate on staying on a straight runway. While the light on the windshield simulated a leading car, the drivers did not have to worry about winding roads, staying in their lane, or trafficking through surrounding vehicles. In this case, texting may be even more dangerous with these real-life obstacles. Overall, it is not necessarily the values that matter most, but the fact that texting while driving is an extremely dangerous habit for all cars on the road. This data will open the eyes of the public due to the fact that Car and Driver found texting while driving to be a greater threat than driving under the influence of alcohol. This comparison is extremely effective due to the widespread education on the harms of drinking and driving. If texting while driving is more dangerous than intoxicated driving, then DWT is much more dangerous than commonly perceived (Austin, 2009).


Automobile Club of Southern California: Text messaging ban ‘09

On January 1, 2009, California became the 6th state to outlaw text messaging while driving. This law in California constitutes in-vehicle text messaging to be a primary offense. Since this law was put into effect, the Automobile Club of Southern California conducted a study in order to determine the effects of this new regulation. For this study, 16,500 cars in Orange County were randomly sampled before the texting ban was initiated. The Automobile Club found that 1.4 percent of drivers was caught texting while driving. Seven months after the law had been initiated, two more surveys were conducted, showing that texting while driving dropped a total of 70 percent. The follow graph shows the percentage of drivers texting behind the wheel months prior to and after the texting ban (Falconer, 2009):


The Automobile Club of Southern California was the first to provide concrete evidence that banning text messaging while driving does have a significant effect on motorist behavior. While the study may contain some error depending on the time of day conducted and the demographics of the area, it provides effective data that will now be used to advocate texting bans in other states as well. Within the seven months that the law has been enforced so far, “the California Highway Patrol issued 1,061 texting tickets statewide” (Alleven, 2009). The more tickets are issued, the less likely people will be to text while driving.



Although limited scientific studies are available regarding the harms of text messaging and the effects of laws to ban it, it is clear that texting while driving is extremely dangerous and should most definitely be avoided. Whether or not laws should be instituted to prohibit texting behind the wheel is a matter of opinion. However, in order to achieve the highest degree of safety on the road, many states are looking to ban texting messaging while driving, as more and more research stating its high degree of danger is available. The majority of people in the United States understand the harms of drinking under the influence, so the more that the harms of texting while driving are compared to the dangers of drinking and driving, the better people will understand its degree of peril. Especially since the Automobile Club of Southern California reported the success of their texting ban, more states will look to outlaw texting as well. It is only a matter of time until more efficient research is available to persuade a countrywide outlaw of text messaging while driving.




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