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Distracted Driving Laws Lack Teeth in Some States

3:32 PM EDT on August 13, 2009

For a story today on the political challenge of outlawing texting behind the wheel, the Washington Post sent its reporter to a downtown intersection to track whether drivers were obeying the city's ban on hand-held cell phones.

istock_000006659048xsmall_driver_texting1.jpg(Photo: brainlink.org)

The results were disheartening: 35 law-breakers passed by in 30 minutes. But even more dismaying, as the piece points out, is Virginia's decision to make its recent texting ban a secondary offense -- meaning that a police officer must pull over a driver for a separate infraction in order to write a ticket for texting.

Four of the 18 states that prohibit drivers from texting or using a hand-held cell phone have classified their bans as secondary, limiting the scope of potential enforcement, according to a Streetsblog Capitol Hill survey of local media. New York's proposed texting law would make it the fifth.

But not every state with primary enforcement smooths the path to busting an offender. In New Hampshire, drivers can claim an exemption for dialing names into their phones, requiring police to obtain their consent for a search of cellular logs.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently announced plans for a nationwide distracted driving summit on September 30, at which the issue of primary versus secondary enforcement is likely to be hotly debated. Although congressional focus on texting by drivers has sharpened of late, with four senators proposing to yank federal road money from states that do not limit the practice, the legislation does not specify the need for primary enforcement.

A complete list of how states enforce their texting and hand-held bans is available after the jump.

Alaska: Primary offense to text

Arkansas: Primary offense to text

California: Primary offense to text or use hand-held cell phone

Colorado: Secondary offense to text

Connecticut: Primary offense to text or use hand-held cell phone

Illinois: Primary offense to text

Louisiana: Secondary offense to text

Maryland: Primary offense to text

Minnesota: Primary offense to text

New Hampshire: Primary offense to text, with exceptions

New Jersey: Primary offense to text or use hand-held cell phone

New York: Primary offense to use hand-held cell phone

North Carolina: Primary offense to text

Oregon: Primary offense to text or use hand-held cell phone

Tennessee: Primary offense to text

Utah: Primary offense to text

Virginia: Secondary offense to text

Washington: Secondary offense to text or use hand-held cell phone

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