A Guide to North Carolina's Distracted Driving Laws
(It's more than just not texting.)
Jessica Huneck|February 24, 2020
There are roughly 250,000 car accidents every year in North Carolina. And most of these are simple distracted driving mistakes that are completely preventable.
That’s why arguably THE most important thing you can do behind the wheel is keep your hands at 10 and 2 and your eyes on the road. Always.
What Is Distracted Driving?
Simply put, distracted driving is engaging in any activity that takes your mind or your eyes off the road while driving.
It can include anything from adjusting the A/C to looking up directions on your cell phone while you are behind the wheel, though using a cell phone is the most common problem and the biggest target for state lawmakers.
Most distracted driving actions, while dangerous, are perfectly legal. Currently, in North Carolina, lawmakers are focused mainly on preventing distracted driving accidents that are caused by texting or emailing while behind the wheel.
Distracted Driving Statistics in North Carolina
You don’t have to follow the local news every night to know that distracted driving is a problem, but here are a few statistics that might help you understand just how serious it is in North Carolina:
In 2017, 54,133 accidents in North Carolina were caused by distracted driving.
These accidents resulted in 25,237 injuries and 152 deaths.
Overall, 19.7% of all accidents can be attributed to distracted driving.
For NC drivers under the age of 18, distracted driving is responsible for 27.3% of all accidents.
Leading Causes of Driver-Error Accidents in North Carolina
Distracted driving is responsible for nearly five times more crashes than drinking and driving in this state. That is why many are calling DWD ("driving while distracted") the new DWI.
Does North Carolina Have Laws against Distracted Driving?
Currently, North Carolina state law prohibits texting and emailing while driving. Drivers under the age of 18 with provisional licenses are prohibited from all cell phone use while behind the wheel, even hands-free. Additionally, school bus drivers are prohibited from using cell phones while driving.
Are There Any Exceptions to the Distracted Driving Laws in North Carolina?
Drivers under the age of 18 are permitted to use their cell phones while driving if they're calling their parents.
North Carolina Distracted Driving Laws at a Glance
Is texting while driving legal?
Can you send/receive texts at a red light?
Is handheld device use permitted?
Any special restriction for young drivers?
Is headphone/headset use permitted?
Is It Legal to Eat a Cheeseburger while Driving in North Carolina?
Yes… At least for now. But that still doesn't mean you should.
North Carolina House Bill 144 (a.k.a. the “Hands-Free Bill") would have gone beyond making the use of handheld devices illegal.
It would have also made “distracted driving” illegal, and this means that a police officer could cite you for eating, drinking, putting on makeup, or any other activity that could be deemed distracting.
This bill passed through the state House but died in the Senate over the summer of 2019. This doesn't mean the fight has ended to pass such a bill. Until that time, though, eating while driving is still legal in this state.
Keep in mind that a number of legal distractions (like eating or adjusting the radio) can significantly increase your risk of being in an accident or driving erratically, so it's better to avoid as many distractions as possible.
Unless you're really in a hurry, you’d probably be better off eating your cheeseburger indoors or in the parking lot.
What Is the Difference between Primary and Secondary Enforcement of Distracted Driving Laws?
Primary enforcement of distracted driving laws means that the police can pull you over if they see you violating state distracted driving laws.
Secondary enforcement of distracted driving laws means that the police can cite you for violating distracted driving laws only if you break another law while doing so.
North Carolina uses primary enforcement.
This means that even if you're obeying all traffic laws and believe that you're in total control of your vehicle while doing so, if a police officer witnesses you texting or sending email while driving, you can be pulled over and given a citation.
What Is the Fine for Distracted Driving in North Carolina?
In North Carolina, the fines for breaking distracted driving laws are:
For texting or emailing while driving: $100
For using a cell phone while under 18 with a provisional license: $25
For using a cell phone while driving a school bus: $100
North Carolina compared to the rest of the US on texting and driving restrictions
Every state in the US has a law that prohibits some sort of cell phone usage except Montana and Arizona; however, in 2021, newly enacted cell phone restriction laws will go into effect in Arizona.
Does Distracted Driving in North Carolina Increase Insurance Rates?
A citation for distracted driving in North Carolina does not add points to your license.
This means that a citation for distracted driving is not likely to increase your car insurance rates, too.
However, because your risk of a collision is higher when you engage in distractions while driving, you're more likely to accidentally do something else (like run a stop sign or cause an accident) that would increase your coverage rates.
What If I Drive into Tennessee?
Distracted driving laws vary by state, so if you drive into a neighboring state that has different laws, you may wonder if you're exempt from following them.
While you are currently permitted make phone calls using a handheld device in North Carolina, hands-free calling is required in Tennessee. This means once you cross the border into Tennessee, you'll be required to either hang up or handle your calls with hands-free technology in order to remain in compliance with the law.
Any time you cross state lines, you're required to follow the laws of the state you're in. Claiming ignorance of the law will not get you out of a citation, so be sure to review the laws of neighboring states before taking a road trip.
What Is North Carolina Doing to Prevent Distracted Driving?
A recent bill that would have made it illegal for North Carolina drivers to use handheld cell phones passed through the state House in 2019, but it died in the state Senate when time ran out. Backers of this new law plan to once again pursue getting it passed when the state Senate reconvenes in 2020.
So What Can You Do?
Quite simply, just put the phone away — even if that means in the glove compartment. The fines themselves are definitely not worth it, let alone the more serious consequences to you and others on the road. Let’s all just get where we’re going safely and save the texting until you get home.