Sorry to start on such a negative note, but there are roughly 40,000 car accidents every year in Rhode Island. 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?
Distracted driving is any activity that takes attention away from the primary task of driving. It can come in many forms, including:
Manual: anything that takes your hands off the wheel, like eating, adjusting the radio, or reaching for an object
Visual: anything that takes your eyes off the road, like grooming, looking for a dropped object, or looking at passengers
Cognitive: anything that takes your mind off the task of driving, like daydreaming, going over a shopping list, or even being lost
The most dangerous activities involve more than one type of distraction. One example would be talking on a cell phone, which can involve all three.
Currently, Rhode Island’s laws are focused primarily on the distractions caused by texting and other cell phone use, neglecting other forms of distraction.
Distracted Driving Statistics in Rhode Island
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 Rhode Island:
A survey conducted by the Rhode Island DMV found that:
Only 67% of respondents stated that they never text while driving.
Only 32% stated that they never talk on a handheld cell phone while driving.
Texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than driving while intoxicated.
An estimated 25% of all car accidents in Rhode Island can be attributed to distracted driving.
Does Rhode Island Have Laws against Distracted Driving?
Although Rhode Island’s lawmakers had considered banning cell phone use while driving as long ago as 2001, handheld phone use didn't become illegal in this state until June 2018. Currently, Rhode Island’s driving laws prohibit:
Reading, writing, and sending text messages or emails using a handheld device
Talking on a handheld cell phone
Holding a cell phone in your hand
Drivers under 18 from using any cell phone or other mobile communication device – even if it's in hands-free mode.
School bus operators from using cell phones – even if in hands-free mode
Rhode Island 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, Arizona will roll out new cell phone restriction laws, leaving Montana the last in line.
Are There Any Exceptions to Rhode Island's Distracted Driving Laws?
Rhode Island does makes exceptions to its distracted driving laws. The law doesn't apply to on-duty emergency services professionals, including:
Law enforcement personnel
Fire safety personnel
Emergency medical personnel
And handheld cell phone use is permitted by all drivers if they are:
Activating, deactivating, or initiating a function of the device
Parked and out of the flow of traffic
Using their device to contact an emergency response operator, hospital, physician, health clinic, ambulance company, police department, fire department, or public utility company
Rhode Island 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?
* when used in one ear only
Is It Legal to Eat a Cheeseburger While Driving in Rhode Island?
Yes. But that doesn't mean you should.
Distracted driving comes in many forms, and eating a cheeseburger can be just as distracting as talking on a handheld cell phone. Basically, anything that takes your attention away from the primary task of driving presents a potential hazard and should be avoided.
So, what happens if a police officer in Rhode Island sees you eating a Big Mac while driving down the highway? In most cases, nothing. There's no law that specifically says you can't eat while driving in this state.
However, even legal distractions (like eating or adjusting the radio) can significantly increase your risk of being in an accident or driving erratically, and these are actions that can earn you a citation. It is always 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's the Difference between Primary and Secondary Enforcement of Distracted Driving Laws?
Primary enforcement of distracted driving laws means the police can pull you over if they see you violating state distracted driving laws.
Secondary enforcement of distracted driving laws means the police can cite you for violating distracted driving laws only if you break another law while doing so.
Rhode Island uses primary enforcement.
This means that even if you're in total control of your vehicle while texting or talking on a cell phone, a police officer who sees you doing so can pull you over and write up a citation for violating the state’s distracted driving laws.
What's the Penalty for Distracted Driving in Rhode Island?
If you get a ticket for violating Rhode Island’s distracted driving laws, you'll be facing:
First texting offense: A maximum $100 fine and/or a license suspension of up to 30 days
Second texting offense: A maximum $150 fine and/or a license suspension of up to 3 months
Third and more texting offenses:A maximum $250 fine and a license suspension of up to six months
For talking on a handheld cell phone: A maximum $100 fine, which is waived for first time offenders if they can show proof that they have acquired a hands-free accessory
How penalties in Rhode Island compare with those in neighboring states
Keep in mind the actual price you will pay for a distracted driving citation will be higher than the assessed fee because of added court costs and other fees. But the price you'll pay doesn’t necessarily end there – which brings us to our text topic: insurance.
Does a Distracted Driving Citation Increase Insurance Rates?
Yes, most likely.
If you're cited for distracted driving in Rhode Island, it's highly likely that your car insurance company will be made aware of the violation. As a result, you can expect to see your car insurance rates go up.
The amount your rate increases depends on which insurance company you use and your overall driving history. In Rhode Island, a distracted driving citation causes rates to go up an average of $393 a year. So make sure you ask yourself whether that call or text is really worth it.
And if you have a safe driver discount, you can say goodbye to the lower rates it offers you. Distracted driving will almost certainly disqualify you from receiving this discount, and this can cause your rate increase to be even more painful.
What If I Drive into Another State?
Distracted driving laws vary by state, so if you drive into a neighboring state with different laws, you need to follow their rules. Claiming ignorance of the law won't get you out of a citation.
Rhode Island has fairly strict laws when it comes to using portable electronic devices while driving, so if you follow the state's rules, you should be fine anywhere you drive.
Some nearby states have more lax laws. Massachusetts still lets drivers use handheld cell phones. Does this mean you can switch from hands-free to handheld once you drive into that state? Yes, it does, but why would you?
Just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. Using common sense can go a long way toward keeping you safe on the roads.
What Is Rhode Island Doing To Prevent Distracted Driving?
On top of adding a ban on handheld cell phones to its books, the state of Rhode Island is investing money in numerous projects aimed toward educating the public about the dangers of distracted driving.
Among these projects are:
The BAY Team, a teen driving project
Young Voice, a youth-to-youth text reduction project
Youth Educator and Influencer Program, administrated by MADD
ThinkFast Interactive Save a Life Tour, a high school education program
Municipal Enforcement Distracted Driving Campaigns
State Agencies (RISP) Distracted Driving Campaigns
SIDNE® High School Education Program
Distracted Driving Public Awareness Campaign
Each of these programs receives funding and support from the state.
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 and the Candy Crush until you get home.