Rhode Island Distracted Driving Laws
- Ban on all cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) for bus drivers (Primary Law).
- Ban on all cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) for novice drivers (Primary Law).
- Ban on texting for all drivers (Primary Law).
Rhode Island’s Texting While Texting Stand
Rhode Island has both existing and pending legislation regarding texting and driving. Some of the bills focus on certain subsets of drivers such as younger drivers or bus drivers. Others specifically target the use of handheld phones while driving. All are focused on eliminating distracted driving in Rhode Island drivers.
Rhode Island has banned all drivers from text messaging since the law was passed in 2009. HB 5021 makes it against the law to send, receive, or write a text while driving. The senate’s counterpart, SB 204, sought to make using a handheld phone for while driving illegal except for public safety personnel. Although SB 204’s comprehensive handheld ban was not enacted, its focus was narrowed in the House’s final form to exclusively address texting while driving. The legislation was approved by the Senate on April 7, approved in the House on October 29, and signed into law by the governor on November 10 of that same year. Violating the texting law brings a fine of $85 for the first incident. Subsequent violations are penalized with a $100 fine for the second offense and a $125 fine for the third and subsequent offenses. This law has been extensively publicized with an ad campaign by Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation.
Rhode Island’s texting ban was the product of the efforts of Senator Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, and Rep. Peter Kilmartin, D-Pawtucket. Kilmartin’s HB 5021 and Sosnowski’s SB 204 form the basis of Rhode Island’s texting law. Both have been active in targeting legislation towards distracted driving. Kilmartin is a pioneer in legislation against texting while driving. Kilmartin is a former police officer who was almost hit in the line of duty by a driver distracted by an electronic device. Kilmartin attempted to enact one of the first laws in the nation of its type in 2001 when he crafted a bill that would have banned using all handheld cell phones while driving. Despite passage by the General Assembly, the bill was vetoed by the Rhode Island. Sosnowski, meanwhile, has sponsored bills in the Senate addressing distracted driving, including SB 204 and most recently SB 242.
Currently, Rhode Island has three bills under consideration that address distracted driving. Sosnowski’s Senate Bill 242 would bar all Rhode Island drivers from using handheld cell phones. Senate Bill 346 proposes a similar ban on handheld cell phone usage for calls or texting but narrows its focus to drivers under the age of 21. In the House, House Bill 5870 would outlaw hands-free handsets for Rhode Island drivers and allow for penalties that would ensure that no cell phone usage can be done within the driver’s vehicle.
SB 346 was approved by a unanimous vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 14, 2011. SB 346 is directed at drivers under 21 years old and bars them from using a handheld cell phone while driving. Both talking and texting would be prohibited. The penalty would be a fine of up to $100 that could be suspended with proof of purchasing a hands-free accessory for their phone.
Meanwhile, both SB 242 and HB 5870 have both been held “for further study” by their respective committees. SB 242 would make all handheld cell phone usage illegal for Rhode Island drivers. Drivers using a handheld cell phone while driving would face a maximum $100 fine. This fine could be suspended for a first-time offender if proof of a hands-free cell phone device could be shown. HB 5870 would make “wireless handsets” illegal for usage by Rhode Island drivers. Penalties to violators would be more extreme than those of SB 346 or SB 242. In addition to fines ($85 to a first offense, $100 for a second offense, and $125 for all further offenses), the driver would also have to install a device to block the ability to use a cell phone in their vehicle if convicted. If the convicted driver refused to install the blocking device, the driver would be subject to one-year and two-year driver’s license suspensions.
Although progress has been made in ending cell phone distractions while driving, legislators Sosnowski and Kilmartin acknowledge that there is more to do. Their legislation outlawing texting has been a triumph for opponents of distracted driving, but many have criticized it for not being aggressive enough and outlawing all cell phone usage by drivers. Senator Sosnowski defended the legislation by saying that she thinks “it’s a good start … Texting is just so dangerous, and we have to tell people this is not acceptable, especially our young drivers.” She does express disappointment that her original bill outlawing all handheld phone devices while driving did not pass, though. Kilmartin further addressed this issue after the house passed the texting ban: “The bill we passed addresses the most egregious form of distracted driving, but I still believe we should pass hands-free cell phone legislation and I will continue that fight next year.” He summed the texting compromise by saying that “I realize this is a 10-year effort, and if we can get the most egregious offense out of the way at this time I’m happy doing this.”
At this time, Rhode Island has laws prohibiting all drivers from texting and comprehensive bans on cell phone usage for novice drivers (under the age of 18) and school bus drivers. Previous legislation has included attempts to further restrict phone usage while driving, including several seeking to ban handheld cell phone devices. The House has repeatedly addressed handheld devices in 2009 and 2010 with HB 7103, HB 7031, HB 5022, and HB 5242. HB 7103 and HB 5242 target both drivers of motor vehicles and bicyclists. All of the bills seek to prohibit cell phone usage while driving unless the driver is using a hands-free device. Another notable bill was introduced by Kilmartin in 2010. His HB 7117 would have added fines to any distracted driver caught in a moving violation. Lawmakers will continue to explore ways to make Rhode Island roads safer and further limit cell phone usage while driving.