New Michigan Law: Put Your Phone Away Behind the Wheel or Go Back to Driver’s Ed

Traffic heads north along the Lodge freeway in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

By Kyle Kaminski

June 7, 2023

A new law signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer aims to crack down on distracted driving and curb car crashes. And if you can’t put your phone down on the road, a judge could order you to take driving classes.

LANSING—A package of bipartisan legislation signed Wednesday by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer aims to clamp down on drivers who won’t stop fiddling with their phones behind the wheel.

House Bills 4250, 4251, and 4252 will amend the Michigan Vehicle Code to prohibit (with a few exceptions) holding or using a cell phone while driving a vehicle, beginning on June 30. 

“This will reduce distracted driving crashes that have taken too many lives and shattered so many families across Michigan,” Whitmer said at a press conference this week. “Every driver in Michigan knows that their attention must be on the road—not on their phones.”

The newly updated laws serve as a formal expansion to the state’s existing distracted driving laws, which currently only prohibit sending and receiving text messages while driving. The new laws will now generally prohibit holding a phone or other mobile device for any reason—including texts, calls, video calls, and checking social media platforms or other apps. 

Those who are caught violating the new law will face an escalating series of penalties, including a civil fine, community service, a driver improvement course, or points on their driving records:

  • First-timers will pay a $100 civil fine and/or perform 16 hours of community service.
  • Subsequent violations are punishable by a $250 fine and 24 hours of community service.
  • Those driving school buses or commercial vehicles will have their penalties doubled.
  • The fines will also be doubled if the driver is found to be at fault in a subsequent crash—for a maximum possible fine of $1,000 and up to 96 hours of community service.
  • Those with three or more civil infractions within a three-year period may also be required to complete a basic driver improvement course, as determined by a state court. 

Lawmakers rallied behind the legislation as a way to modernize state laws to keep up with evolving technology, and have high hopes that it will curb distracted driving and related crashes.

“Today is a great day for the safety of all Michigan drivers,” said state Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth). “Distracted driving has been proven to make our roads more dangerous.”

Across the country, about 3,500 people died in crashes involving distracted driving in 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That marks an increase of about 12% from the 3,142 people killed by distracted driving in 2020. About 6% of the crashes tracked in Michigan that year involved distracted drivers—and 59 of them resulted in a death.

Researchers at the University of Michigan’s Traffic Research Institute have also found that car crashes involving a distracted driver tend to be much more severe than those that do not.

“We need to remove distractions and make our roads safer for everyone who is using them—the drivers, the bicyclists, the pedestrians, the workers on the side of the road, the law enforcement on the side of the road as well,” Whitmer added. “Each traffic death is more than a statistic.”

Under the law, police officers and other first responders can still use their phones while carrying out their official duties, as can those programming or testing autonomous vehicles. Insulin pumps and other worn medical devices are exempt from the law. Drivers can also still use their phones while driving to report a traffic crash, crime, medical emergency, or serious road hazard.

Drivers will also be prohibited from using their phones even when their vehicle is not moving —like when they’re stuck at a red light or caught up in a traffic jam. The new law also prohibits use of any GPS or mobile navigation features unless they’re operated by voice. A single tap (or swipe) to activate or deactivate a function, or to select a contact, is allowed under the new law.

Most of the cash collected from the new fines would go toward public and county law libraries, which are the designated recipients of those revenues under the state Constitution. A small portion of the revenues will also go toward the state Justice System Fund, which supports various justice-related endeavors in the judicial and legislative branches of state government. 

At least 25 other states have a similar general prohibition against using cell phones while driving, and 44 other states generally prohibit cell phone use by new drivers or teenage drivers. 

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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