Programs in Connecticut, Massachusetts aim at cracking down on texting while driving

Emmet Pierce

With studies showing that many people ignore bans against texting while driving, law enforcement agencies are looking for new ways to crack down on distracted drivers.  

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has given $550,000 to Connecticut and Massachusetts to create model programs for catching texting motorists. Each state will receive $275,000 to develop anti-texting enforcement tools, such as using spotters on highway overpasses and sending out roving patrols to identify illegal activity.

The programs will be tested over two years. Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), says efforts in Connecticut and Massachusetts may lead to expanded enforcement across the U.S.

“Clearly, it sends the message to drivers that the law enforcement is putting some teeth behind the law,” Rader says. “It is important that motorists get the message that distracted driving is dangerous. When drivers know they are more likely to get a ticket, they are less likely to do things that are illegal.”

So far, 39 states ban texting while driving and 10 states prohibit the use of handheld cellphones while driving, according to NHTSA. Pilot programs in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y., have shown that it’s more difficult to spot a driver texting behind the wheel than one who’s using a handheld phone.

Ignoring good advice

“This is a huge issue,” says Pete Moraga, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California. “State Farm just had a study that showed that young people admit to texting while driving, even though they know it’s a dangerous thing. People have been bombarded with this information yet they just can’t stop texting, even while driving. In California, we have strict laws about using handheld devices, but we still are seeing people do it.”

The State Farm survey was conducted in February by Harris Interactive. It showed that 57 percent of teens with driver’s licenses admit texting while driving. Among 14- to 17-year-olds who intend to drive or already have a driver’s license, the study found that only 35 percent strongly agree they may be killed if they regularly text and drive.

While there’s widespread agreement that texting causes traffic accidents, no one has determined just how much it costs, in terms of traffic tickets, collision damage or increased car insurance rates, State Farm spokesman Robert Villegas says.

Insurance rates are based on a variety of factors, including the number of moving violations on your driving record and the number of claims you’ve filed. A citation for texting while driving can be used to help set your premiums. The more negative marks you have on your driving record, the greater the likelihood that your premiums will rise.

Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, says it will take aggressive ticketing to get drivers to stop texting. “The goal is to change behavior,” he says. “It is a similar model to how the nation changed seat belt us.”

Help from new technology

Although using handheld communication devices while driving is considered dangerous, new technology ultimately may change law enforcement’s ideas about what types of activities are appropriate behind the wheel.

Beginning in 2013, California’s “Freedom to Communicate” law will let drivers use hands-free technology to talk and text. The legislation approves using voice-operated and hands-free devices to dictate, send or listen to text-based messages.

Rader says exploring the use of new technology makes sense. While enforcing traffic laws is important, what could end up helping the driving-while-texting problem most is an expansion of crash-avoidance technology to protect drivers from their own bad habits, he says.

Such technology warns drivers when it detects the potential for a collision. It may increase braking power or adjust steering to prevent accidents.

“Crash-avoidance technology may be a more comprehensive approach, especially things like forward-collision warning with automatic braking,” Rader says. “These are systems that constantly monitor the road ahead and they are never distracted. They have the potential to be the extra set of eyes, to help avoid crashes no matter what distracts the driver.”

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