How Policy Can Influence Distracted Driving

How Policy Can Influence Distracted Driving 150 150 Laura Dattner

To combat the risks of using a cellphone while driving, states have implemented a variety of laws. As of July 2021, 21 of 50 states have implemented comprehensive hands-free cellphone laws (i.e., comprehensive handheld cellphone bans), which prohibit almost all handheld cellphone use including texting, calling and using apps. In addition, three states and the District of Columbia (DC) banned calling and texting, 24 states banned texting, and two states had no prohibition on cellphone use for drivers of all ages.

A recent study led by researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital looked at drivers, non-drivers (passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists), and total deaths involved in passenger vehicle crashes from 1999 through 2016 in 50 U.S. states, along with the presence and characteristics of cellphone use laws.

The study, published in Epidemiology, found that comprehensive hands-free cellphone laws were associated with fewer driver deaths, but calling-only, texting-only, texting plus phone-manipulating and calling and texting bans were not. This could be due to greater compliance; hands-free cellphone laws clearly send the message that cellphones are not to be handled at all while driving. In addition, drivers may be more likely to believe that enforcement is possible when the laws govern cellphone use broadly.

“We’re not suggesting states take people’s phones away while driving or tell them not to use their phone while driving,” says Motao (Matt) Zhu, MD, MS, PhD, lead author of the study and principal investigator in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s. “We’re recommending that, if you need to use your phone while driving, you do so hands-free. Further, we recommend states implement comprehensive hands-free cellphone laws to encourage this behavior change.”

Dr. Zhu continues, “Our research demonstrates that handsfree laws save lives and reduce the societal costs associated with distracted driving. We found that hands-free laws have prevented about 140 driver deaths and 13,900 driver injuries annually in the United States.”

Distracted driving-related crashes are a major burden on emergency medical and trauma systems and result in significant medical expenditures for treatment and rehabilitation. In Ohio, the associated societal costs for distracted driving-related crashes are about $1.2 billion every year, which is equal to $2,300 every minute.

Data for this study were obtained from Fatality Analysis Reporting System by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and LexisNexis.

Read more about teen driving safety in the Fall/Winter issue cover story.

This article appears in the 2021 Fall/Winter print issue. Download the full issue.



Zhu M, Shen S, Redelmeier DA, Li L, Wei L, Foss R. Bans on cellphone use while driving and traffic fatalities in the United States. Epidemiology. 2021 Sep 1;32(5):731-739.

About the author

Laura Dattner, MA, is a research writer in the Center for Injury Research and Policy of the Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. With both a health communications and public health background, she works to translate pediatric injury research into meaningful, accurate messages which motivate readers to make positive behavior changes.