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The 411 on cellphone tickets and car insurance

By Posted : 02/28/2012

textingTexting or talking on a cellphone while driving may be against the law nationwide sometime in the near future, if the National Transportation Safety Board gets its way.

But the road ahead is uncertain, including how getting caught might affect your car insurance rates.

The board last year called for a nationwide ban on cellphone use while driving and recommended strong enforcement. Last year, more than 3,000 died in distraction-related traffic accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Many states have already passed laws banning texting or using handheld cellphones while driving, but the rules are all over the map:

• Nine states and the District of Columbia and Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using handheld cellphones, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. They are:

1. California

2. Connecticut

3. Delaware

4. Maryland

5. Nevada

6. New Jersey

7. New York

8. Oregon

9. Washington

In all of these states except Maryland, a police officer can write you a ticket even if you haven't done anything else wrong. In Maryland, an officer can cite you only if you've been pulled over for some other offense.

• No state bans hands-free cellphone use for all drivers. However, 30 states and the District of Columbia ban all cellphone use, including hands-free use, for new drivers.

• Thirty-five states, the District of Columbia and Guam ban text messaging for all drivers, and another seven states prohibit text messaging by novice drivers.

• Some states, such as Maine, New Hampshire and Utah, treat cellphone use and texting as part of a larger distracted-driving issue. In Utah, using a cellphone is an offense only if you do it while committing some other violation besides speeding.

The penalties for cellphone tickets vary, too. If you live in New York, three violation points are assigned to your driving record, and you pay a fine up to $100 and other mandatory fees and surcharges up to $85. The penalties are the same if you text or e-mail while driving, except the maximum base fine goes up to $150.

In California, the base fine for texting or talking on a handheld cellphone is $20 for the first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses. The actual amount you pay could be triple the base fine after additional assessments are added. A conviction is reported on your driving record, but no violation points are assigned for the offense.

Does a cellphone ticket mean goodbye to cheap car insurance?

The answer depends on the law in your state, your insurance company's decision and your record for other offenses.

"What my clients are seeing is that insurance companies care very much about this, especially because using a cellphone while driving is viewed as a distraction," says Matthew Greenberg, a New York traffic law attorney.

Greenberg says it's difficult to know how much a New Yorker's auto insurance rates would go up because of a cellphone ticket.

"Every company is going to have their own policies," he says.

In New York, a cellphone ticket carries the same number of points as a ticket for driving 10 mph or less over the speed limit or failing to obey a stop sign.

But insurance companies have their own formulas for calculating points, Greenberg says, and some no-point violations, such as not wearing a seat belt, still go on your record and have the potential to raise insurance rates. Insurers don't necessarily consider a cellphone ticket more serious just because the state decided to assign it more points, he says.

In California, though, car insurance companies that look at your record only see violations with points on your driving record, says Tully Lehman, a spokespersonfor the Insurance Information Network of California. They don't see zero-point convictions, so a cellphone ticket in the Golden State does not impact car insurance rates.

In Georgia, which banned texting while driving in 2010, car insurance companies are still developing policies on how to rate ticketed customers, says David Colmans, executive director of the Georgia Insurance Information Service. He says because cellphone use is considered a minor violation, you probably would not a see a rate increase with just one ticket. But a few tickets for the offense could be a different story.

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