Multi-tasking on the Road: What penalty do you face if you are distracted while driving by cell phones, food, etc?

Multi-tasking on the Road: What penalty do you face if you are distracted while driving by cell phones, food, etc?

by Stephanie Morrow, December 2009

Take a minute while you're at a red light or stop sign and look at your fellow drivers. E-mailing, texting, eating and drinking, touching up makeup, and even reading the paper are not uncommon for a generation of multitaskers. But, studies have shown that this multitasking generation is more dangerous on the road than drivers who are legally drunk. So, what exactly are states doing to curb multitaskers who use their vehicles as an office, living room, bedroom or bathroom?

"A Look at a BlackBerry Causes Freeway Pileup"

That was an actual headline printed in the Seattle Press-Intelligencer, which reported that a driver of a van was looking at his BlackBerry when he hit a car, which caused a chain-reaction accident involving five vehicles. This situation is not uncommon; studies have shown that distracted drivers account, directly and indirectly, for nearly 80% of the 6.3 million crashes that occur annually in the United States, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. In fact, drivers who look away from the road for more than two seconds are twice as likely as an attentive driver to be involved in a crash.

If you have been guilty of distracted driving, you're not alone if you perceive things differently. When 1,200 drivers were surveyed about their driving habits, 80% said they multitask while driving, and 59% of them do not consider themselves distracted drivers, according to a recent survey commissioned by Nationwide Mutual Insurance. These drivers who perceived themselves as safe had admitted that they have changed clothes, balanced a checkbook, shaved, and even nursed a baby, all while driving their vehicle.

Specific States Fight Distracted Drivers

The federal government, state legislatures, safety organizations and vehicle manufacturers are all playing a role in trying to educate drivers of the dangers of driving distracted. And specific states have begun prohibiting cell phone use in many areas of the country. In 2001, New York enacted the first ban on using a handheld cell phone while driving. Since then, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia have enacted similar jurisdiction-wide bans on driving while talking on a handheld cell phone. Six additional states - Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania - allow specific localities to ban cell phone use, which include Chicago, Detroit, Sante Fe, New Mexico, and Brooklyn, New York. Only eight states - Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah - prohibit localities from banning cell phone use.

Technology Also a Problem

As technology becomes more and more prevalent in vehicles, so is the threat of distracted drivers. And it's not only cell phones that are becoming a threat; from TVs and DVD players to computers and navigation systems, a vehicle has become a living room and home office for businesspeople and families. In fact, 36 of 43 American and foreign carmakers offer navigation devices and 29 offer "rear seat video" or DVD players in their vehicles, according to the Telematics Research Group, in Minnetonka, Minnesota. Because of this rapid increase in technology, 38 states have laws specifically restricting onboard video screens from the driver's line of sight.

Currently, the penalty in many states for injuring or killing someone with a vehicle while being distracted can be as minor as a traffic violation. But there are some states that are toughening laws against distracted drivers. Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Washington, D.C. have passed laws against distracted or negligent driving that impose stiff fines. Nevada has also stiffened penalties charged against drivers who cause fatalities while eating, using a cell phone, or putting on lipstick from less than $200 to a maximum of $1,000 and six months in jail.

An Illinois family, whose son was killed when a driver who was downloading cell phone ring tones swerved off the road and hit him while he was cycling, is currently seeking legislation changes that enact stiffer penalties for distracted drivers. Under the current law, the driver, who plead guilty to improper lane usage, received the maximum sentence, which was six months probation, a $1,000 fine, and an order to attend traffic safety school. The legislation being sought by the family of the cyclist, which is now moving through the Illinois General Assembly, would provide jail time for drivers involved in fatal accidents because of careless or negligent use of cell phones, iPods or other technology. Legislation to reduce distracted driving was also proposed in 38 additional states last year, with eight bills being enacted.

Maryland lawmakers introduced bills this past January to ban motorists from talking on both handheld and hands-free cell phones and other activities that could distract them while driving, including personal grooming, reading and writing. The legislation to ban distracted driving would include a $500 penalty and one point on the driver's license for the first offense. A second bill would specifically target cell-phone use and impose a $100 fine. Maryland has already banned the use of handheld cell phones for drivers under the age of 18.

For specific information on your state's laws, visit


  1. Adjust or change radio station or CD player: 82%
  2. Drink a beverage: 80%
  3. Talk on the cellphone: 73%
  4. Eat a snack: 68%
  5. Eat a meal: 41%
  6. Daydream: 31%
  7. Drive without shoes: 28%
  8. Experience road rage: 23%
  9. Listen to books on tape/CD: 21%
  10. Smoke: 21%

Source: Survey of 1,200 drivers for Nationwide Mutual Insurance. Margin of error 4.5 percentage points