Your Guide to Washington, D.C.'s Distracted Driving Laws
(We’re talking about more than just not texting)
Sorry to start on such a negative note, but there are more than 35,000 car accidents every year in Washington, D.C. 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?
The District of Columbia defines distracted driving as “inattentive driving while operating a motor vehicle that results in the unsafe operation of the vehicle where such inattention is caused by reading, writing, performing personal grooming, interacting with pets or unsecured cargo, using personal communications technologies, or engaging in any other activity which causes distractions.”
Distracted Driving Statistics in Washington, D.C.
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 Washington, D.C.:
Distracted driving was responsible for 1,369 collisions in D.C. in 2015. Of these:
857 involved property damage only
511 resulted in significant injuries, and
1 caused a fatality
Nearly 10% of all distracted driving accidents in D.C. can be attributed to the use of cell phones and other portable electronic communication devices.
Daydreaming is the top cause of distracted driving accidents in this city followed by the use of phones and distractions caused by other passengers.
Does Washington, D.C. Have Laws against Distracted Driving?
The law in Washington, D.C. currently states:
Drivers using cell phones, whether for texting or calling, are required to use hands-free mode.
Drivers who have learner’s permits are prohibited from all cell phone use even if hands free.
School bus drivers are prohibited for using cell phones, even in hands-free mode, while driving.
Are There Any Exceptions to the Distracted Driving Laws in Washington, D.C.?
The following exceptions to Washington, D.C.’s distracted driving law apply:
Handheld cell phones may be used in emergency situations including calls to a hospital, an ambulance service provider, law enforcement, 9-1-1, or 3-1-1.
Cell phones and other electronic communications devices may be used by law enforcement and other emergency service providers when necessary in the performance of their official job duties.
Drivers are permitted to touch their cell phones only for the purpose of initiating or terminating a call or turning the device off or on.
Washington DC Distracted Driving Laws at a Glance
Is Texting while Driving Legal?
Can You Send/Receive Texts at a Red Light?
Is Hand-held Device Use Permitted?
Any Special Restriction for Young Drivers?
Is Headphones/Headset Use Permitted?
Is It Legal to Eat a Cheeseburger While Driving in Washington, D.C.?
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 cell phone.
So what happens if a D.C. police officer sees you eating a cheeseburger while driving down the road? Most likely, nothing. There is no law that specifically says you can't eat while driving in this city.
But 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. So its best to avoid them whenever possible.
Unless you're really in a hurry, you’re better off eating your Whopper 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 the city's distracted driving laws.
Secondary enforcement of distracted driving laws means police can cite you for violating distracted driving laws only if you break another law while doing so.
Washington, D.C. uses primary enforcement meaning that even if you're in total control of your vehicle while using your cell phone, a police officer who sees you doing so can pull you over and write up a citation.
What's the Penalty for Distracted Driving in Washington, D.C.?
If you get a ticket for violating Washington, D.C.’s distracted driving laws, you can expect:
For a first offense: A fine of $100.
For a second offense (within 18 months): A fine of $150.
For a third and subsequent offense (within 18 months): A fine of $200 and a 30 to 90 day suspension of driving privileges.
For violations involving death, injury, or property damage: If the violation leads to an accident that injures or kills someone or that results in at least $10,000 in property damage, the penalty is a fine of up to $1,000 and/or a maximum of 180 days in jail. A reckless driving charge may also be added to the offense.
First-time offenders who didn't cause an accident while violating the law can avoid paying the fine by providing proof that they have acquired a hands-free accessory to be used in their vehicle.
Washington, D.C.'s fines for distracted driving compared to surrounding states
Keep in mind the costs aren't limited to the amounts listed above. Traffic tickets typically add in court costs and miscellaneous fees that can make the amount you are expected to pay significantly higher. But the added costs don’t end there, which brings us to our next topic: car insurance.
Does a Distracted Driving Citation in Washington, D.C. Increase Insurance Rates?
If you're cited for distracted driving in Washington, D.C., there's a good chance your insurance carrier will know about the infraction. If this happens, your insurance rates are likely to go up.
The amount of your rate hike will depend on which insurance company you use and your overall driving history. In Washington, D.C., distracted driving citations cause rates to go up an average of $47 a year.
And if you have a Safe Driver Discount, you can most likely say goodbye to that. 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 Outside of D.C.?
Distracted driving laws vary by state, and when you cross that state line you are required to follow their laws. Claiming ignorance of the law will not get you out of a citation, so be sure to check on the current laws for any states you may be traveling through before you take your next road trip!
The laws in Washington, D.C. are pretty stringent when it comes to distracted driving. So if you continue to act in ways that are lawful in this city, you should be fine anywhere you drive in the country.
Some states are a little looser on the laws and allow handheld devices while driving. But if you're used to leaving your phone down while you’re behind the wheel, you're better off continuing that behavior regardless of where you are.
What Is Washington, D.C .Doing to Prevent Distracted Driving?
The District of Columbia has been a leader in enacting distracted driving laws. Council members continue to monitor the effectiveness of the laws and their enforcement.
Unfortunately, people seem to be addicted to their cellphones especially in the hustle and bustle city of Washington, D.C. It is therefore crucial that the city continue its public awareness campaigns and education in schools so that drivers are well informed of the dangers that distracted driving poses.
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.