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Distracted driving and the summer road trip

Getting caught with your hands on the phone instead of on the wheel can add a costly wrinkle to a road trip. Here's what you need to know when making a multi-state trek.
Image: Bixby Bridge on The Pacific Coast Highway
You will want all your attention on California's Bixby Bridge and The Pacific Coast Highway.Doug Pensinger / Getty Images file

Is the gas tank full? Are your tires properly inflated? Does the GPS know your intended destination? And is your smart phone loaded with the latest apps for finding cheap gas, clean restrooms and inexpensive hotels? If so, you’re ready to hit the road for a summer adventure.

But don’t back out of the driveway just yet. If you’re taking your cell phone along for the ride, there’s another important task to take care of. You’ll need to know the distracted driving laws, especially if you’re planning to cross state lines.

So far, 30 states — and some local jurisdictions, including Chicago and Phoenix — now have laws that address using cell phones or sending text messages while driving. Fines range from $20 to $150 for the first offense.

Unfortunately, the laws aren’t uniform. One state may ban handheld phone use in cars while another may allow it. Texting while driving is banned in dozens of states, but will result in a ticket in others only if you get into an accident.

Confusing? You bet. Here’s how the rules can play out on three of America's most popular summer road-trip routes.

Rules for the Mother Road
Route 66 starts in Chicago and ends in Santa Monica, Calif., and is known to many as the Mother Road. Drive it from one end to the other, as many travelers dream of doing, and you will cross seven state borders.

You won’t see applicable cell phone laws posted like speed limit signs, but AAA spokesperson Nancy White says that doesn’t matter. “Drivers are still responsible for knowing the cell phone laws that apply in each state.” So while the motor club urges travelers not to text or talk while driving, there’s a handy list of each state’s distracted driving laws on the AAA website.

A stencil denotingRobyn Beck / AFP

If you’re planning to drive Route 66, and if you don't have a photographic memory, consider printing out the full list. Distracted driving laws currently apply in five of the eight states. Oklahoma will begin enforcing new rules in November, while Arizona and New Mexico have no laws on the books.

Throughout Illinois, texting while driving is prohibited, but handheld phones are prohibited in Chicago entirely. Missouri prohibits texting for drivers under the age of 21, but Kansas law states it is off-limits to everyone. While Texas bans text messaging and the use of handheld phones only in school crossing zones, drivers in California are not permitted to send text messages or use handheld cell phones across the state.

A few of these states have additional restrictions for teen drivers as well.

Cruising the coasts
Cell phone rules will be much easier to follow if you take a West Coast road trip along the beaches of California, Oregon and Washington. Put your cell phone away or take along a hands-free device, because all three states ban text messaging and the use of handheld phones while driving.

If you want to stay legal on a road trip along the Eastern Seaboard, from all of New England down to Washington, D.C., you’ll want to keep your printout of distracted driving laws handy.

Text messaging and using a handheld phone is prohibited in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and in Washington, D.C. Massachusetts joins the group on September 30; Delaware signs on early next year. Maryland currently bans texting while driving, and will prohibit the use of handheld cell phones starting October 1 (as a secondary offense). And Pennsylvania currently has no state-wide distracted driving laws, but a number of cities and towns have put their own in place.

Driving while distracted
But wait, there’s more. Laws in Maine, among other states, allow tickets to be given for any distracting activity, cell phone-related or not, that results in an accident. And many states have more stringent restrictions for novice drivers.

Would you rather just take your chances?

There are hands-free devices, apps and high- and low-tech tools that can help you keep your hands off your mobile device.

Barbara Harsha uses a low-tech measure. She buries her phone at the bottom of her purse while she's driving. “Nine times out of 10, calls I don’t answer turn out to be calls that really didn’t need answering.”

Harsha, the Executive Director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, suggests turning off your phone and giving your full attention to the road. “Driving is its own very complicated task,” she says. “It’s not a question of how you can skirt the laws. It’s a question of driving safely.”

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to, authors the and is a columnist for You can follow her on .