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Is It Legal to Text-Message at a Stoplight?

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By Daniel Taylor, Esq. on September 08, 2014 8:13 AM

Is it legal to text message at a stoplight?

By now, you're probably well aware that texting while driving is against the law pretty much everywhere, with every state except Montana having some form of texting-while-driving prohibition on the books.

But what about text messaging while behind the wheel of a car that isn't actually moving, such as a car waiting at a stoplight? Is that still considered "texting while driving"? Here's what you need to know:

Distracted Driving Laws Vary By State

Texting while driving falls under the general category known as distracted driving. In some states, texting while driving may be prohibited by general distracted driving laws. Other states have specific laws prohibiting texting while driving.

In some instances, individual cities and counties may have laws regarding texting while driving. In Montana, for example, where there is still no state law prohibiting texting while driving, more than a dozen cities and several counties do have laws that outlaw the practice.

Texting at Stoplight May Be Legal, or a Legal Gray Area

Depending on the laws in your state, city or county, texting while stopped at a stoplight may not be considered "while driving" for purposes of distracted driving laws.

For example, Florida's ban on texting while driving specifically notes that "a motor vehicle that is stationary is not being operated and is not subject to the prohibition." As The Northwest Florida Daily News has explained, the law "allows texting while stopped at a red light, in a traffic jam or reporting criminal activity."

In other states, the law is less clear. For example, California's texting while driving prohibition merely states "a person shall not drive a motor vehicle" while writing or reading a text message (except if using a hand's free operation). So is being stopped at a stoplight "driving" for purposes of this law? The California Highway Patrol seems to think so, telling San Francisco's KGO-TV that it's not OK to check email or read text messages while at a stoplight or in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

And even in states that explicitly allow or have a stoplight loophole in their texting-while-driving laws, any time being distracted by your phone causes you to impede traffic in a way that creates a dangerous condition for other drivers, such as not going on a green light, you can potentially be cited for distracted driving or even reckless driving.

Your best bet: Go hands-free or consider even going phone-free any time you're behind the wheel, moving or otherwise.

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