States with the Harshest and Weakest Penalties for Texting while Driving

Washington became the first state to enact a statewide ban on all drivers from texting while driving back in January 2008. Since then, 38 other states and the District of Columbia have joined suit, with Ohio being the most recent state to enact a ban. That ban went into full effect on March 1, 2013.

But even though there is a clear trend toward banning all drivers from reading or sending text-based communications behind the wheel, the penalties for doing so are anything but standard. They range all the way from a $20 fine up to a maximum $10,000 fine and having to spend a year in prison. The average maximum fine size by law for texting while driving is about $376 for a first offense.

To see which states have taken the most and least severe stances on texting while driving, we went through the laws of every state with an all-driver texting ban. We then looked at the maximum fine sizes, possible jail time, enforcement guidelines, and insurance implications for a first offense to determine which states are the strictest and which are the most lenient.

For more on texting while driving, check out our "Eyes on the Road: Texting while Driving in America" infographic and our "Will a Texting Ticket Affect My Car Insurance Rates" FAQ.

Top 5 Harshest Statewide Penalties

1. Alaska: Maximum penalty for a first offense is a $10,000 fine and one-year prison sentence.

This maximum penalty only applies if you don't get into an accident while texting. If you get into an accident and injure another person while you were texting, the violation escalates to a felony, the maximum fine increases to $50,000, and the maximum prison sentence increases to five years. If the injuries you caused are "serious," the maximum fine increases to $100,000. If your texting while driving led to the death of another person, you could have to pay up to $250,000 in fines and spend up to 20 years in prison.

We should note that the actual fine for texting while driving likely doesn't typically reach the $10,000 limit. Cindy Franklin, Anchorage's municipal prosecutor, says that she has never personally seen a texting-while-driving violation handled by her office but that the typical fine for a misdemeanor like this would likely be around $1,500 — with $1,000 of that suspended — if the offender has a relatively clean history and wasn't acting as a "menace on the road." She says a $1,000 active fine would be about the maximum range for the offense.

Franklin says Alaska tends to have pretty harsh penalties for driving violations compared with other states, and this is just one example.

2. Utah: Maximum penalty for a first offense is a $750 fine and 90-day jail sentence.

Like with Alaska, this maximum penalty only applies if you didn't get into a crash and hurt someone. If you're texting while driving in Utah and cause an accident in which someone suffers serious bodily harm, the maximum fine increases to $1,000, and the maximum jail sentence increases to one year.

If someone is texting while driving in Utah and causes a fatal crash while driving in a "criminally negligent manner," the offense is considered a third-degree felony, which brings with it a maximum $10,000 fine and maximum prison term of 15 years.

According to the New York Times, passage of the Utah law was spurred by an incident in September 2006 in which a 19-year-old college student crossed lanes into opposite traffic while texting and driving and ended up clipping an oncoming vehicle. The vehicle ended up crashing into a pickup on the road, and both occupants died.

3. Maine: Maximum penalty for a first offense is a fine of $500.

The minimum fine for texting while driving was originally $100, but legislators bumped the minimum to $250 in 2012.

4. Wisconsin: Maximum penalty for a first offense is a $400 fine. Violators also have 4 demerit points added to their license for a violation, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Wisconsin has a pretty wide fine range for texting while driving, starting at $20 and going all the way up to $400.

But an added pain that violators will have to deal with is the 4 demerit points that are added to their driving records as a result of the offense. Insurers tend to look at these demerit points. And if they determine that drivers with texting violations on their records tend to get into more accidents and are a higher risk to insure, they may end up charging more. So your financial pains might not stop after paying your fine; you may see inflated insurance premiums also. Under the state's point system, texting while driving is viewed to be as serious as speeding by 11 to 19 mph over the limit or failing to stop for a school bus while the red lights are flashing.

5. New York: Maximum penalty for a first offense is a $235 fine. Violators will also have 3 driver-violation points added to their record.

New York actually has the sixth-highest maximum fine, but the fact that the violation will add three points to your driving record makes it a little more serious than the maximum $250 fine that's in place in Oregon, which has the fifth-highest maximum fine. Some New York insurers will end up raising a driver's rates by 9 percent or 10 percent if they have a recent ticket for texting while driving on their record.

Top 5 Weakest Statewide Penalties

(Note: The maximum fines listed here are only what is required by the statewide ban. Local laws may impose harsher fines and other penalties, and there may be additional municipal and court costs tacked on to the violation.)

1. Virginia: Penalty for a first offense is a $20 fine.

Virginia's texting ban not only comes with a very low fine but also allows only secondary enforcement. That means police can't pull drivers over solely because they suspect them of texting while driving. Citations for texting violations can only be given if they are in conjunction with another offense such as speeding or driving recklessly

The state currently has the weakest penalty for texting while driving, but that may change very soon. In the current legislative session, lawmakers are considering making enforcement primary (meaning police could pull drivers over solely for a texting offense) and increasing the fine for the offense. The Legislature originally asked for a $250 fine for a first offense, but the governor has asked that the amount be dropped down to $125.

2. Iowa: Maximum penalty for a first offense is a $30 fine.

In addition to having a relatively low fine, Iowa also only enforces the law on a secondary basis, meaning a citation for the violation needs to be in conjunction with a citation for a more serious offense. Also, state law says the offense shall not be classified as a moving violation.

3. Indiana: Maximum penalty for a first offense is a $35.50 fine.

Indiana's maximum penalty for a first offense is relatively low compared with the state's maximum penalties for second and third offenses. If you were convicted of texting while driving once before in the last five years, the maximum penalty shoots up to $250. For further offenses, it escalates to $500. These rankings only take into account penalties for a first offense, though.

4. Delaware: Maximum penalty for a first offense is a $50 fine.

Delaware's law explicitly states that no points shall be added to a driver's record for a texting violation and that such a violation will not become part of the offender's driving history.

5. Pennsylvania: Maximum penalty for a first offense is a $50 fine.

All Statewide Penalties for Texting while Driving

Click the table below to see a text version of this table.

table showing statewide penalties for texting while driving

States with partial bans

Our rankings looked at the 39 states that ban all drivers from texting while driving, but there are six states that have partial bans. The following are the details of those bans:

Mississippi: Texting banned for drivers with a learner's permit, intermediate license holders, and school bus drivers.

Missouri: Texting banned for drivers 21 years old and younger.

New Mexico: Texting banned for drivers with a learner's permit and intermediate license holders.

Oklahoma: Texting banned for drivers with a learner's permit, intermediate license holders, and public transit drivers.

South Dakota: Effective July 2013, texting banned for drivers with a learner's permit and intermediate license holders.

Texas: Texting banned for drivers under 18, drivers in school crossing zones, and bus drivers with passengers who are 17 or younger.