Whether it's a cellphone ban for young drivers, a texting ban or an overall hand-held cellphone ban, nearly every state has some sort of law that restricts the use of cellphones while driving. But does enforcing these laws actually decrease distracted driving? According to a recent experiment, it may.
Officials in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., recently established pilot programs to find out how stricter law enforcement and high-profile education campaigns would affect cell phone use driving violations. Both states currently ban all handheld use behind the wheel. Using the slogan "Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other," New York and Connecticut campaign representatives used TV, radio and the Internet to communicate the message that using hand-held cell phones while driving is against the law. For instance, an online video titled "BAM!" shows four scenarios where drivers of varying ages meet destruction because they are distracted by their cell phones.
These campaigns were accompanied by law enforcement crackdowns. Throughout the course of the campaign, there were four enforcement waves during which officers targeted motorists who were using cellphones while driving. Syracuse police issued 9,587 citations and Hartford police issued 9,658 tickets, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
NHTSA representatives observed cellphone use while driving before and after each wave of increased enforcement. Researchers positioned themselves in nearly 70 sites in New York and Connecticut, most of which were in areas with heavy traffic. They watched for and recorded instances of drivers in moving traffic who were using their cellphones. In addition to gathering information from in-the-field observations, researchers gave surveys to drivers visiting licensing offices in the test areas. The surveys asked drivers whether they'd noticed the distracted driving campaigns and whether they'd altered their behind-the-wheel behavior within the past 30 days.
The results were promising. Based on observations and the surveys, NHTSA estimates the use of hand-held cellphones and of texting while driving each decreased by one-third in Syracuse after the high-visibility enforcement. In Hartford, a 57 percent drop was seen in handheld use, and a nearly 75 percent drop in texting behind the wheel.
This experiment was inspired by the national "Click It or Ticket" campaign. NHTSA sites Click it or Ticket as "the most successful seat belt campaign ever" and credits it with demonstrating that people are more prone to follow the law when they understand there are serious consequences for failing to do so. For many Americans, buckling up has become commonplace, and NHTSA hopes that putting cellphones away while driving also can become routine behavior.
Sixteen percent of the total traffic fatalities in 2009 were distraction-related, according to NHTSA. Currently, state laws in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah, Washington and the District of Columbia ban all hand-held cellphone use while driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
Meanwhile, it is against the law to text message behind the wheel in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Novice drivers are banned from using their cellphones in 30 states and the District of Columbia, and school bus drivers are not allowed to use cellphones behind the wheel in 19 states and the District of Columbia, according to IIHS.