DOT: Experiments cut texting, talking while driving

John Egan

Pilot projects in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., that combined stepped-up education and law enforcement led to a decrease in drivers talking and texting while driving, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Monday.

In Syracuse, talking and texting behind the wheel declined by 33 percent, the Department of Transportation (DOT) says. In Hartford, use of handheld cellphones while driving fell 57 percent, while texting and driving decreased by nearly 75 percent.

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

Statewide effort planned

Following the Syracuse and Hartford experiments, DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans a statewide test of the three-part approach of tough laws, strong enforcement and public awareness to combat talking and texting while driving. The state where the test will be conducted wasn't identified.

David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says the success of the two pilot programs demonstrates that "combining strong laws with strong enforcement can bring about a sea change in public attitudes and behavior."

In Syracuse, police issued 9,587 citations during the pilot project that involved talking or texting on a cellphone while driving. During the same period, police in Hartford issued 9,658 tickets for illegal use of a cellphone. The Syracuse and Hartford experiments were conducted in April, July and October 2010 and in March and April 2011.

In 2009, nearly 5,500 deaths and another 500,000 injuries resulted from traffic crashes involving a distracted driver, according to DOT. Overall, distraction-related deaths represented 16 percent of total traffic deaths in 2009.

Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have enacted bans on texting behind the wheel. Nine states and D.C. prohibit using a cellphone while driving.

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