It’s no April Fool’s joke. April 1st marks the beginning of Distracted Driving Awareness Month, which means states across the nation are taking the issue more seriously. And well they should. According to a study conducted by Virginia Tech, texting while driving increases the risk of an accident (or even a near miss) by more than 23 times compared to the likelihood of the same thing happening to a driver who isn’t distracted. What’s more, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says driving while texting is six times as dangerous as drunk driving. That’s right — holding your cell phone can be far more hazardous than taking a swig from a six pack.

Driving while distracted, drunk, or high is not funny

It’s no April Fool’s joke. April 1st marks the beginning of Distracted Driving Awareness Month, which means states across the nation are taking the issue more seriously. And well they should. According to a study conducted by Virginia Tech, texting while driving increases the risk of an accident (or even a near miss) by more than 23 times compared to the likelihood of the same thing happening to a driver who isn’t distracted. What’s more, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says driving while texting is six times as dangerous as drunk driving. That’s right — holding your cell phone can be far more hazardous than taking a swig from a six pack.

In Michigan, the problem has reached such significant levels that tens of thousands of crashes are blamed on drivers distracted behind the wheel. The League of Michigan Bicyclists — whose members are often the victims of distracted drivers — reports that nearly one out of every five traffic fatalities in Michigan are pedestrians, bicyclists, or wheelchair users. And many of those victims are killed by drivers using cell phones behind the wheel.

Deaths and accidents caused by inattentive drivers are not limited to Michigan. They’re happening so frequently across the nation that NHTSA named April Distracted Driving Awareness Month to draw attention to the problem. They’re also working with law enforcement agencies to boost enforcement this month, with a special emphasis on the weekend of April 8-12. Other organizations across the country are also adding their voices to the message, encouraging drivers to give their full attention to the road — wherever they are driving.

For instance, TrueMotion, a company that uses phone data to track driver behavior, has published a list of the 10 most- and least-distracted cities for drivers. No Michigan cities fall into either list, but if you’re traveling out of the state, you might want to take special care in St. Louis, Missouri, which has the highest reported rate of driver distraction. TrueMotion reports that drivers in the Gateway City are distracted nearly 20 percent of the time — about 12 minutes of every hour spent on the road. On the other side of the coin, you might feel safer next time you travel to Minneapolis, where TrueMotion reports that drivers are distracted only about 6 percent of the time. Still, that adds up to nearly four minutes in an hour of driving. At 60 mph, it translates to a full four miles where the driver’s eyes aren’t fully on the road!

The cell phone distraction problem is so serious across the U.S. that two dozen states have enacted hands-free legislation — meaning drivers who are caught holding their phones can be subject to legal penalties. Starting January 1st this year in Virginia, for example, drivers can be pulled over and fined $125 for a first offense if they’re seen holding their phones. Cross the border from Michigan into Indiana and you’d better set down your phone or you’ll face a fine of up to $500. Of course, hands-free phone operation is okay … though it can still be distracting. A simple rule of thumb: don’t use your thumbs! Keep your hands on the wheel and wait to text until you’re safely stopped. (And in Virginia, stopped means parked. Drivers in the Old Dominion can still be cited for using their phones while waiting at red lights because the law states that even while stationary at a stoplight the car is still considered to be under the driver’s operation.)

States where holding the phone can mean a fine experience

Hands-free laws are not yet in place in Michigan, but in case you wondered, here’s a list adapted from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that indicates the states where merely holding your phone behind the wheel can get you into trouble:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia

In those states where you can’t hold your phone while driving, penalties are varied, ranging from monetary fines to points added to a driver’s record or worse. But you don’t need to have a phone in your hands to be charged with driving distracted and to face penalties. In Michigan, the distracted driving fine for a first offense is $100, and it goes up from there. Cross the Ambassador Bridge into Windsor, Ontario, and the same offense will cost you at least $615. Depending on the severity of the infraction, you could even be jailed in some places. In Alaska, for example, penalties go as high as a year in prison if you’re caught texting while driving.

By the way, laws concerning texting behind the wheel are even more prevalent than those that mandate hands-free phone operation. According to the IIHS, the only state that doesn’t fully ban drivers from texting while driving is Montana. (Missouri bans texting, but only for drivers under age 22.)

Friends don’t let friends drive with friends

Teens are often blamed for careless texting while they drive, and some studies have shown that multiple teens in a car are more likely to engage in risky behavior. The Association for Psychological Science (APS) cites research showing that having a single teen passenger makes a fatality 44 percent more likely for teenage drivers. But one survey cited by TechnoBuffalo is a bit counter-intuitive. It found teens driving alone almost uniformly said they texted while solo in a car, but were far less likely to do so when accompanied by friends (and — surprise — even more unlikely to text if parents were present in the vehicle).

And driving while stoned is a downer in Downers Grove (or anywhere else in Illinois)

Beyond enacting stringent and punitive legislation, some states are also using persuasion to try to minimize distracted driving. Special license plates encourage driver safety in Virginia, which held a competition for students to design that state’s custom anti-distracted driving license plate. The winner was created by a high school student who used the phrase “Eyes on the Road” to attract the attention of drivers to her message. Other states put up clever messages on roadside dynamic display signs, including one in Illinois that discouraged stoned drivers from taking the wheel after the state legalized marijuana. Its message: “Got the munchies? Get food delivered. Don’t drive high!”

Michiganders who enjoy a little “Mary Jane” should also be aware that she’s not a good passenger to take along for the ride. Any amount of THC in the bloodstream can be grounds for a charge of driving while under the influence according to an article published in mlive.com. And don’t let backseat passengers do their doobies if you’re behind the wheel. That’s also against Michigan law.

Despite rigorous regulations and all the hype aimed at minimizing distracted driving, whether it’s caused by chiming phones, partying passengers, mind-altering substances, or other funky factors, there will still be inattentive drivers who cause accidents and injure innocent people. If you or someone you love are victimized by one of these negligent drivers, you might benefit from a conversation with one of our personal injury attorneys at 855-MIKEWINS. You can also email us by clicking here. The consultation is free and there is no fee unless we win your case.