The U.S. Department of Transportation on Monday, July 11, announced dramatic reductions in distracted driving in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., after two pilot projects measured the effect of increased law enforcement coupled with high-profile public education campaigns.
“These findings show that strong laws, combined with highly-visible police enforcement, can significantly reduce dangerous texting and cell phone use behind the wheel,” says U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Based on these results, it is crystal clear that those who try to minimize this dangerous behavior are making a serious error in judgment, especially when half a million people are injured and thousands more are killed in distracted driving accidents.”
Each program, which was supported by $200,000 in federal funds and $100,000 from the state, examined whether increased police enforcement along with paid advertising and news media coverage could reduce distracted driving. The pilot efforts used “Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other” as the media campaign theme and were structured similarly to the national seatbelt campaign, “Click It or Ticket.”
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 issued 9,658 tickets for illegal phone use. Before and after each enforcement wave, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration actively observed cell phone use and conducted public awareness surveys at driver licensing offices in the two cities, which found:
• In Syracuse, because of high-visibility enforcement, both handheld cell phone use and texting behind the wheel have declined by one-third; and
• In Hartford, 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.
“The success of these pilot programs clearly show that combining strong laws with strong enforcement can bring about a sea change in public attitudes and behavior,” says NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “We applaud the work of the men and women of the Syracuse and Hartford police forces, and call on state legislatures, law enforcement and safety advocates across the nation to follow their lead.”
NHTSA plans to test this same three-part formula – tough laws, strong enforcement and ongoing public awareness – at the statewide 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 handheld cell phone use while driving.