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From the Secretary: Enforcement Essential to Combat Distracted Driving

Anthony Foxx U.S. Secretary of Transportation

It’s been said that getting 90 percent of Americans to do anything is nearly impossible. Officers managing traffic stops might have good cause to disagree because last year, when Americans got into their cars, nearly nine out of ten—86 percent—wore their seat belts. Today, buckling up is such an accepted norm that it’s hard to believe that, as recently as the 1970s, roughly 90 percent of Americans did not use seat belts.

Driver behavior has, without exaggeration, flipped 180 degrees over the past four decades. That reversal can be attributed to a number of things, from legislation at the state level to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) Click It or Ticket campaign.

Of course, there’s another part of the effort that’s made a huge difference—enforcement.

My thanks go out to every law enforcement officer who reports for duty each day to serve and protect the people of the United States. Credit is due to the vigilant officers who, over the past 40 years, have started writing tickets and, in the process, dissuaded drivers and passengers from driving without seat belts. It’s the same kind of difference they’ve made in reducing alcohol-related fatalities, decreasing these deaths by 60 percent over the last 20 years.

As Secretary of Transportation, statistics like these give me hope. Good laws, tough enforcement, increased public awareness—it’s a winning combination that is proven to reduce dangerous driver behaviors in the United States, and I know we can use these same tactics to tackle emerging road safety threats like distracted driving.

Before the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) took up distracted driving under my predecessor, Ray LaHood, the issue was like smoking in the 1940s or asbestos in the 1950s: the harm was there, but few knew about it, and even fewer were trying to prevent it.

As recently as 2009, a person could drive all the way from the Canadian border to Mexico, texting the entire way, and not have broken a single law. At that time, only 18 states had anti-texting laws.

Fortunately, state governments have stepped up to ensure drivers will start putting that cell phone down. Today, 42 states have legislation that bans texting, and 12 states ban all handheld phone use. These new laws are a win for safety. But as we saw in the efforts to encourage seat belt use and stop drunk driving, laws are only as good as the enforcement behind them.

With that in mind, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) set out to study the effects of enforcement on distracted driving.

Under NHTSA’s leadership, we created a pilot program in 2010 called Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other. Launched in Syracuse, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut, with four enforcement waves over the span of a year, it was the first campaign of its kind to specifically focus on the effects of increased law enforcement efforts and public service announcements on distracted driving.

In Syracuse, the data show that high-visibility enforcement decreased both handheld cell phone use and texting behind the wheel by one-third. In Hartford, where there was more room for improvement because researchers initially identified drivers talking on their cell phones with twice the frequency of Syracuse, handheld use dropped by 57 percent and texting behind the wheel dropped by nearly three-quarters.

While the numbers themselves were impressive, we were also struck by the remarkable enthusiasm within both communities. The people of Syracuse and Hartford warmly embraced the pilot project and its objective. They changed their habits, and reminded their families and neighbors to do the same.

To build on this success, we’ve expanded the Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other pilot to support enforcement efforts in Delaware and the Sacramento Valley region of California. We’ve also awarded grants to Massachusetts and Connecticut to help them plan and execute high-visibility anti-texting enforcement programs.

We hope these programs will help us identify real-world protocols and best practices that will make it easier for law enforcement officers across the United States to crack down on distracted drivers.

But there’s still more work to do, and all of us at DOT are committed to putting our shoulders into it. The NHTSA is in constant contact with all law enforcement stakeholders, eager to lend a hand. And the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration serves as a resource for those facing challenges with regulated carriers, namely interstate operators of trucks and buses.

We want to build on this partnership. This April, as part of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, we’re asking all law enforcement officials to join DOT and NHSTA in stepping up our efforts to crack down on mobile phone use behind the wheel.

For the first time ever, we’re launching a nationwide, highly-visible enforcement effort against distracted driving that’s modeled after our successful Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over and Click It or Ticket campaigns. It includes a new public service announcement that encourages young adults to stop sending or reading text messages while driving. I’m excited about this new campaign, and I hope you will be too.

From supporting new laws, educating drivers, and increasing enforcement, our efforts have taken us far. We’ve made so much progress reducing distracted driving in such a short time. But this effort was never supposed to be—and cannot be—a sprint. It’s a marathon. And like a marathon, the last mile is always the hardest—but it’s also the most rewarding. ♦

Please cite as:

Anthony Foxx, “Enforcement Essential to Combat Distracted Driving,” From the Secretary, The Police Chief 81 (April 2014): 16.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 4, April 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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