Common sense says that if you’re operating a motor vehicle, you should keep your hands free and avoid distracting yourself by holding a phone to your ear. But different states interpret common sense in different ways, so the laws regarding phone usage while driving can vary. As of 2014, no state bars all drivers from any sort of cell phone use at all.
Holding a phone while you’re driving is illegal in 12 states and the District of Columbia as of January 2014, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most drivers are free to engage in telephonic conversations in these jurisdictions as long as their hands are free. Some states, such as California and New York, make exceptions if you have to make a call – such as to 911 – in an emergency. In 37 states and the District of Columbia, you can’t even talk on speaker while driving if you recently got your license or you’re a teenager. This rule also applies to school bus drivers in 18 states and the District of Columbia.
Violations of cell phone laws usually result in fines and points against your license. The tricky aspect of these penalties is in how they can be assessed. Talking on a handheld device is often a primary offense, meaning that a police officer can stop you for this reason alone. Younger and new drivers can often be pulled over just for speaker use if they’ve also committed another driving infraction.
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