Distracted driving programs make an impact

July 11, 2011 10:30:24 AM PDT
The U.S. Secretary of Transportation says cash-strapped police departments around the country need subsidies to boost enforcement of state laws against distracted driving.

Secretary Ray LaHood says pilot programs in Hartford, Conn. and Syracuse, N.Y. succeeded in reducing the amount of people talking on the phone or texting while driving.

"These findings show that strong laws, combined with highly-visible police enforcement, can significantly reduce dangerous texting and cell phone use behind the wheel," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Those programs relied on $600,000 in federal and state funds. They were designed to test whether providing extra money to police departments would help reduce distracted driving.

During four periods of stepped up enforcement over the past year, Syracuse police issued 9,587 citations for driver violations involving talking or texting on cell phones while operating a vehicle. During the same period, police in Hartford, Connecticut, issued 9,658 tickets for illegal phone use.

Before and after each enforcement wave, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) actively observed cell phone use and conducted public awareness surveys at driver licensing offices in the two cities, which found:

  • In Syracuse, New York because of high-visibility enforcement - both handheld cell phone use and texting behind the wheel have declined by one-third.

  • In Hartford, Connecticut, where researchers initially identified drivers talking on their cell phones at twice the frequency (which left more room for improvement), there was a 57 percent drop in handheld use and texting behind the wheel dropped by nearly three-quarters.

    LaHood said Monday on a conference call with reporters that he knows police departments are constrained by budget problems and he wants the federal government to help pay for similar programs elsewhere.

    NHTSA plans to test this same three-part formula - tough laws, strong enforcement, and ongoing public awareness - at the state-wide level next. In 2009, nearly 5,500 fatalities and another half million injuries resulted from crashes involving a distracted driver. Overall, distraction-related fatalities represented 16 percent of total traffic fatalities in 2009.

    Nationwide, 34 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam have enacted texting bans. Nine states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands have prohibited all hand-held cell phone use while driving.

    Click here to see the NHTSA report on the enforcement programs in Syracuse and Hartford. To learn more about NHTSA's efforts on distracted driving visit www.distraction.gov.

    Some information from The Associated Press