Hands-free device laws urged as distracted driving deaths surge

Data released Monday showed that distracted driving deaths increased 12% in 2021.
Motorists slow as traffic backs up in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Traffic safety advocates are urging more states to pass laws that require drivers to put down their devices and focus on the road, as fatal distracted driving crashes increase.

The latest push comes as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration kicked off its annual distracted driving campaign Monday and released data showing that distracted driving deaths increased 12% to 3,522 in 2021.

Overall, fatal crashes increased by 10% in 2021 to 42,939 deaths — the highest number since 2005 and the largest year-over-year percentage increase since 1975, according to NHTSA.

“These numbers are staggering,” Sophie Shulman, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, said at a news conference Monday in Seattle where the National Conference on Highway Safety Priorities is taking place.

To address distracted driving, Shulman urged a three-prong strategy of education, technological solutions and state laws.

Nearly two-thirds of states already have hands-free driving laws on the books, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

At the news conference, Steve Kiefer, whose son Mitchel was the victim of a 2016 distracted driving crash in Michigan, urged the remaining states to follow suit.

“We know these [laws] work and …. we’re not going to stop until we get all 50 states to have hands-free legislation in place,” said Kiefer, chairman of the Kiefer Foundation, which works to end distracted driving.

In recent weeks both the Missouri and Iowa Senates have approved hands-free measures. Missouri is one of two states, along with Montana, that does not have a blanket ban on texting and driving. Existing Missouri law does ban the practice for drivers 21 and younger.

This week, a new Ohio law took effect that makes texting and driving a primary offense meaning officers can stop a driver for violating the law. Previously, it was a secondary offense making Ohio an outlier.

“We have been working for years to change the culture around this deadly behavior,” said Gov. Mike DeWine (R), the Columbus Dispatch reported.

So far this year, 71 distracted driving bills have been introduced in 24 states, according to tracking by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That includes a Maine bill to dramatically boost distracted driving fines and a proposal in Illinois to make it illegal to drive with a pet in the driver’s lap.

In California, a bill has been introduced to expand an existing ban on teen drivers using a phone, even with a hands-free device, to drivers up to age 20.

“I just want to elevate this issue and bring attention to it,” Assemblywoman Diane Dixon (R), the bill’s prime sponsor, told the Sacramento Bee in January.

Thirty-six states and Washington, D.C., prohibit younger drivers from using a device while driving, according to GHSA.

At the NHTSA news conference, Torine Creppy, president and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide, said Monday was the 50th anniversary of the first cell phone call. She urged state lawmakers to ensure their distracted driving laws keep up with ever-changing technologies “such as livestreaming and social media use.”

Captain Ron Mead of the Washington State Patrol said people who use a handheld device while driving are significantly more likely to be involved in a serious collision.

This month, law enforcement agencies across the country will conduct distracted driving emphasis patrols.

The rise in roadway deaths has alarmed state and federal officials.

In February, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced a Call to Action campaign. That effort followed the release last year of a National Roadway Safety Strategy.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes a focus on transportation safety. Under the law, NHTSA’s budget will increase by more than 50%, according to the agency.

The law will also make available $5 billion over five years to fund local, regional and tribal road and street safety projects.