As of June 6, 2023, it is now illegal to hold your cell phone while driving in Alabama. Police can already charge drivers with traffic violations such as speeding, swerving, failure to use a turn signal, or erratic driving. Now, if the officer observes a driver committing one of these moving violations while holding a phone, they can charge the driver with a separate offense.
The handsfree law prohibits the following types of actions while driving:
Violations of the handsfree law are classified as a Class C Misdemeanor. For the first year after the handsfree law’s enactment, officers can only give drivers a verbal warning for violations.
First-time offenders of the handsfree law can avoid a conviction if they can prove to the court that they recently purchased a device that would allow them to operate the phone handsfree in the future. While the law does not give any examples of these devices, possible examples could include aux cords that connect your phone to your car’s radio or Bluetooth compatible radios.
Thanks to the handsfree law, distracted drivers who cause a car wreck will be in even bigger trouble in car wreck cases. This is because of the legal doctrine of negligence per se, which says that an act is considered negligent if that act also violates a particular statute. Normally, to prove negligence, a plaintiff must prove that a defendant owed them a duty and breached that duty. If a defendant was negligent per se, meaning that they violated some other law – such as the handsfree law – then the plaintiff does not have to prove any particular duty was owed or breached by the defendant.
The handsfree law also makes it easier for victims in car wrecks to argue that the at-fault driver should have to pay punitive damages for wanton driving. Wantonness is conduct that goes beyond mere negligence and is carried out “with a reckless or conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.” Ala. Code § 6-11-20 (1975). Drivers who are caught holding a phone will have a hard time arguing that they were not being reckless, especially when our state has made it a criminal offense to drive while holding a cell phone. If a distracted driver is found liable for wantonness, then a jury may levy punitive damages against that driver, which are meant to punish the wrongdoer and dissuade others from committing the same act in the future.
The new law, passed as Senate Bill 301 in the Alabama Legislature, will be codified in the Code of Alabama § 32-5A-350.1. To read the law for yourself, go to: https://legiscan.com/AL/text/SB301/2023