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Road Warrior's Guide to Cell Phone Laws

January 14, 2011 | Permalink

How many times have you overheard every shocking detail of someone’s—often rather private—cell phone conversation while trying to enjoy a nice meal? Or been cut off on the highway by a driver more engaged in a phone call than driving? Cell phone ownership has risen to 91% of Americans, which means a whole lot of public and on-the-road phone-chat is going on.

Now this road warrior has absolutely no interest in returning to the cell-less days of old, though I can imagine that taking a vacation totally disconnected might be particularly relaxing… At any rate, I also recognize that perhaps not all times and places are right for calling, texting, surfing and the like. And beyond courtesy issues, there are just plain safety and legal concerns that arise from cellular phone use in certain situations.

While there’s no state that outlaws all cell phone use by drivers, nine states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington) and the District of Columbia do require that it be hands-free. Other states, such as Massachusetts, have variations where talking on a hand-held phone is legal as long as the driver keeps one hand on the wheel. There are also municipalities that have their own laws, including Chicago, Detroit and Brooklyn. Many of the remaining states that do not have cell phone specific laws do tie cell phone use to court cases, traffic ticketing and fine amounts under existing distracted or reckless driving laws.

And just in case you’d consider text-messaging while driving, know that it’s expressly outlawed in 30 states and D.C.

If you’ll be sharing driving with minors it’s also important to note that cell phone use by young drivers under 18 is specifically restricted in 30 states (and D.C.). Age of affected young drivers and form of restriction varies from state to state, with some states restricting all cell use by under-18 drivers, other states focusing just on texting by minors (even in states with no such ban for adults), and others restricting use by those driving under learner’s permits or intermediate licenses.

Ticket fines for breaking the cell phone use laws range from $20 to over $200 for a talking offense and more for texting. In the northeast, for example, first-time offense fines range from $35-$150.

If you do engage in talking while driving, especially if you may be traveling in any of the cell phone use-restricted states, you’ll need to be sure you’re equipped with the necessary tools. Wired headsets are available for cell phones, and they have the major advantage of being very inexpensive (some under $10), but most people find them inconvenient. Still, for ease of use and quality sound, if you’ve not already invested inBluetooth (roughly $75-$125) or other headset technology, now might be the time to take the plunge. Key to remember if you’re buying such hardware for the first time: Not all hands-free devices are the same, nor do all fit all phones. So be sure that you choose one that is compatible with your phone.

Be sure to check in regularly on changing laws governing cell phone use. One of the best sources is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which maintains a regularly-updated, easy-to-read table of each state’s regulations. Whether you agree with them or not, the penalties can be heavy, and besides, focusing on safety and courteous cell phone use benefits everyone.

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