The impact of grace periods on hands-free laws
Are the results in Ohio & Michigan diverging?
It’s been over seven months since Ohio introduced its hands-free bill on April 4, 2023. Since then, we’ve documented how the law has performed over time. We’ve found that the law has reduced distracted driving significantly across the state, dropping from 1 minute and 39 seconds per hour of distraction to 1 minute and 31 seconds in the first month. It’s fluctuated a bit since then, bouncing between 1 minute and 30 seconds and 1 minute and 33 seconds of distraction per hour, averaging 1 minute and 32 seconds across the seven months. This is a 7.4% drop from the month before the law. We estimate that the law has prevented 3,200 crashes, eight fatalities, and $78 million in economic damages.
On October 5, the grace period for Ohio’s hands-free law ended. Now, drivers in Ohio will be fined $150 for their first offense and get 2 points on their license. The Ohio State Highway Patrol says it’s already issued over 1,500 tickets for distracted driving. OSHP estimates that fatal and injury-related crashes caused by distracted driving have fallen by 19% this year.
It’s hard to say how the end of the grace period has impacted the level of distracted driving in Ohio. The month before the grace period ended saw 1 minute and 33 seconds of distracted driving. Distraction was at 1 minute and 32 seconds the week and the month after ticketing began. Would distracted driving have increased without active ticketing beginning? It’s hard to say. Either way, it’s good news that distraction has continued to drop.
As we’ve documented, the impact of hands-free laws fades over time. This is because the initial burst of awareness about the law is unsustainable over time. In the first few months, reporters write about it, the government runs campaigns for it, and police officers actively educate drivers about it. Over time though, resources and attention shift to other areas. Driver awareness of the law fades, and distraction levels bubble up again.
Ohio has been smart about its media relations strategy in rolling out its hands-free law. Like many states, Ohio benefited from widespread media coverage when it introduced the law. It then leveraged the reporting from CMT saying that the law had reduced distracted driving significantly in the first month. It even published a tweet from Ohio’s governor, Mike DeWine. Soon after, Governor DeWine, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), and the Ohio Traffic Safety Office (OTSO) issued a press release highlighting the law’s success, including a quote from the governor. Ohio also made state officials available for media interviews. This strategy extended the coverage of the law and further increased awareness.
When it was time to end the grace period in early October, Governor DeWine held a press conference. He quoted CMT’s research to show the law was making a difference in changing the behaviors that lead to crashes. He also quoted crash data from OSHP showing that there were fewer crashes in the six months since the law began. In doing so, the governor was able to give the press powerful new data points on the progress of the law as it went into its next phase. This helped keep the coverage of the law going.
All this activity has increased awareness. A poll from Fix Our Roads Ohio found that 90% of Ohio drivers were aware of the law and that 75% would work on reducing their distracted driving.
No grace period in Michigan
Michigan began its hands-free law on June 30, 2023. Unlike Ohio, Michigan’s law didn’t have a grace period. Despite technically being able to give drivers tickets for driving distracted, many Michigan police departments focused on educating drivers first. “Sometimes, it’s not all about ticket writing — it’s about educating,” Lt. Royd Coleman of the Detroit traffic enforcement unit told Bridge Michigan. “So if that changes a person’s behavior, we’d rather do that.”
Michigan’s hands-free journey started similarly enough to Ohio’s. Distracted driving dropped by 13 seconds in the first month. It fell again in the second month, landing at 1 minute and 33 seconds, 13.7% less than the month before the law.
Compared to Ohio’s drop of over 8% in the first month after the law, Michigan’s initial results were strong. This may be due to the lack of a grace period — drivers knew they could be ticketed immediately. The combination of heightened awareness and immediate enforcement could deepen the initial impact of a hands-free law.
Since then, however, distracted driving in Michigan has ticked up each month. In month three, distraction rose to 1 minute and 36 seconds. By month five, it was at 1 minute and 40 seconds, just 7.1% lower than before the law. For comparison, distraction was 7% lower in Ohio in month five.
In the chart above, we can see the change in monthly distraction behavior in Michigan and Ohio. In Michigan, distraction has increased every month since month 3, totaling a 7.6% increase. In the same time period, Ohio’s distraction level increased 2.4%, three times lower.
The distraction pattern we see with Michigan is typical of hands-free performance. There’s a strong initial push, but without a sustained media strategy awareness falls over time and distraction returns.
Michigan police have recently seen the impact of this effect. In late October, Michigan’s state police participated in an operation called “Ghost Rider,” cracking down on distracted drivers. Many weren’t aware of the new law.
Distraction has fallen by 10.8% in Michigan since the law began. At this rate, we estimate that the law has prevented 2,800 crashes, eight fatalities, and $78 million in economic damages since going into effect in late June.
Longer grace periods in Alabama and Missouri
Alabama and Missouri have seen a more muted impact from their hands-free legislation than Ohio and Michigan. Alabama’s law helped lower distraction rates in the first month by 2.4%. Since then, the law hasn’t impacted distraction in the state.
Missouri’s law has shown stronger staying power so far. Since the law was introduced on August 28, distracted driving has fallen over 4%. We estimate that the law has helped prevent 350 crashes, one fatality, and $8.3 million in economic damages.
Both Alabama and Missouri have longer grace periods than Ohio’s six months. Alabama’s grace period lasts one year, ending June 16, 2024. Missouri’s grace period runs through January 1, 2025, 16 months after the law began.
A new way to think of grace periods?
As we’ve seen from the results in Ohio, grace periods don’t seem to have the same impact on reducing distracted driving as the initial launch of the law. Launching the law without a grace period may have a stronger initial effect, like we saw with Michigan. However, as states evaluate their launch strategy for hands-free laws, they should consider the grace period in two ways. First, the grace period is a great opportunity to increase awareness of the law by having officers actively educate drivers about it. Second, it creates a media touchpoint in the hands-free campaign where politicians can generate attention for the law, highlighting its successes and mapping the next phase. Ohio has run this playbook well. As a result, the law has high awareness levels among Ohio drivers. And, as we’ve argued, awareness of hands-free laws leads to lower levels of distracted driving.