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distracted driving

Distracted driving is any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment, or navigation system—anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.

Many states have enacted laws to help prevent distracted driving. These include banning texting while driving, implementing hands-free laws (that prohibit the use of hand-held electronic devices while driving), and limiting the number of young passengers who can ride with teen drivers.

Laws vary from state to state and are continually evolving, but, for example:

• Hand-held cellphone ban: 24 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cellphones while driving.

• All cellphone ban: No state bans all cellphone use for all drivers, but 36 states and D.C. ban all cellphone use by novice or teen drivers, and 18 states and D.C. prohibit any cellphone use for school bus drivers.

• Text messaging ban: 48 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers.

o Missouri prohibits text messaging by drivers 21 years old or younger.

• Other states prohibit hand-held cellphone or all cellphone use by all or certain drivers in certain zones.

And some municipalities have enacted ordinances designed to limit distractions while driving, especially in school zones.

As with many traffic violations, the officer issuing the citation and the prosecutor have significant discretion in determining whether there was a violation of a traffic law (whether the driver was distracted while driving) and whether the violation constitutes a certain offense, as defined by the state legislature in the traffic code or in a municipal ordinance.

This discretion to issue a ticket or citation and prosecute the charge against the driver is balanced by the discretion of the jury or judge in determining whether the prosecution met its burden of proof sufficient to convict the driver (for a criminal offense) or find the driver responsible (for a civil infraction, violation, or offense).

In Texas, distracted driving laws focus on prohibiting texting while driving for all drivers. Texas does not have a statewide ban on the use of hand-held cellphones while driving for all drivers, but it does have laws targeting novice drivers and school bus operators. Specifically, drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from using wireless communication devices. School bus drivers are also banned from using cellphones while driving if children are present. Additionally, Texas law bans the use of cellphones in school zones unless the vehicle is stopped or a hands-free device is used. Enforcement of these laws involves the discretion of law enforcement officers to issue citations and the discretion of the judiciary to determine the outcome of such cases. Local ordinances may also impose additional restrictions on distracted driving to enhance safety, particularly in school zones.

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