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Highway Safety Initiatives

Increasing the Focus on Distraction

Amanda Giordano, Project Assistant, Highway Safety Initiatives, IACP

In a society where multitasking is the norm, it is no surprise that drivers attempt to navigate the roadways while performing other tasks. However, although multitasking may be considered a beneficial strategy at home or at work, the outcomes of distracted behavior on the roads have proven to be disastrous. According to an article published last month by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 9 people are killed and over 1,060 are injured every day due to distracted driving.1

Any distraction that draws a driver’s attention away from the actual task of driving is dangerous. Even seemingly benign activities such as changing the radio station, eating, or talking to a passenger greatly affect safety since they require a diversion of visual, manual, or cognitive attention.

Although distracted driving and its accompanying dangers have long been a traffic safety issue, the emergence of cell phones and other in-car technologies has significantly increased the likelihood of distraction and the resulting car crashes. According to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), visual-manual subtasks (such as reaching for a phone, dialing, or texting) triple the risk of a crash.2 This statistic is especially alarming considering that at any given daylight moment in the United States, an estimated 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving.3 As a result, distracted driving is now considered to be a roadway “epidemic” that compromises the safety of all drivers, passengers, and bystanders.

Such statistics serve as a call to action for both legislators and law enforcement agencies to address distracted driving by establishing state and federal laws. Currently, primary enforcement laws banning all drivers from using handheld phones while driving have been adopted in 12 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Legislation prohibiting drivers from text messaging has been even more widespread, with 41 states, Washington, DC; Puerto Rico; Guam; and the U.S. Virgin Islands passing enforcement laws.4 To support this new legislation, government and law enforcement agencies continue to research best practices to address distracted driving, starting with the use of high-visibility enforcement (HVE).

The Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other Campaign

In April 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched the Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other HVE campaign to test whether a high-visibility enforcement model would affect cell phone–related distracted driving behaviors involving talking or texting. In addition, this study aimed to assess law enforcement’s ability to observe cell phone violations and to determine if an HVE campaign would increase drivers’ perceived risk of being ticketed for violating the law.

NHTSA teamed with the Connecticut Department of Transportation and the New York Department of Motor Vehicles’ (DMV) Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee to establish distracted driving HVE programs in Hartford, Connecticut, and Syracuse, New York.5 Enforcement efforts included four waves of focused enforcement occurring in April 2010, July 2010, October 2010, and March–April 2011. Law enforcement agencies in Hartford and Syracuse employed strategies that were tailored to their specific communities; however, both exceeded enforcement benchmarks as compared to their other HVE campaigns. To support the project, public awareness of the local cell phone laws and the increase in enforcement efforts were generated through the distribution of Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other campaign materials. Media attention was also generated through press releases, fact sheets, news articles, and purchased radio airtime. In Connecticut and New York, more than 100 news organizations cited the distracted driving HVE campaign.

From the baseline to the end of the fourth wave, observances of drivers talking on cell phones while driving dropped 57 percent in Hartford and 32 percent in Syracuse, while those observed to be texting declined by 72 percent in Hartford and 32 percent in Syracuse. Also, public awareness and perceived risk of citation statistically increased in both areas. The success of the New York and Connecticut pilot studies prompted overwhelming federal support, with the Department of Transportation allocating $2.4 million to expand the enforcement campaign to California and Delaware.

The “Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving”

In June 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled a “Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving,” which detailed a multilevel strategy aimed at reducing driver cell phone usage.6 This comprehensive strategy calls for a national mobilization in which all stakeholders will play a crucial role to end distracted driving. In this plan, states are encouraged to adopt and enforce distracted driving laws; automakers are encouraged to develop guidelines for built-in technology that reduces potential distractions; and stakeholders are encouraged to extend their efforts beyond personal responsibility and toward ending distracted driving nationwide. Furthermore, the blueprint heavily emphasizes the need for improved driver education curriculum that teaches novice drivers about the devastating consequences of being distracted on the roadways.

Since Anthony Foxx’s appointment as U.S. Transportation Secretary in December 2013, the new federal DOT chief has maintained this steadfast, multimodal approach to ending distracted driving. On December 9, Foxx convened a group of automakers, wireless providers, safety groups, and law enforcement agencies to tackle distracted driving’s biggest challenges of “moving public opinion and public policy, changing driving behavior, and safeguarding technology.”7 Despite acknowledging the robustness of these challenges, Secretary Foxx remains optimistic. In an article published by the Huffington Post, he stated, “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.”8

For more information on the national effort, resources, and tips on how to get involved,please visit ;♦

1“Distracted Driving,” Injury Prevention and Control: Motor Vehicle Safety (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 2014), (accessed March 5, 2014).
2Gregory M. Fitch et al., The Impact of Hand-held and Hands-free Cell Phone Use on Driving Performance and Safety-critical Event Risk NHTSA, April 2013, DOT HS 811 757, (accessed March 7, 2014).
3“Driver Electronic Device Use in 2012,” Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note, NHTSA, February 2014, DOT HS 811 884, (accessed March 5, 2014).
4“Distracted Driving Laws,” Governors Highway Safety Association, March 2014, (accessed March 6, 2014).
5“Four High-Visibility Enforcement Demonstration Waves in Connecticut and New York Reduce Hand-Held Phone Use,” Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note, NHTSA, July 2011, DOT HS 811845, (accessed March 5, 2014).
6Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving U.S. Department of Transportation, NHTSA, June 2012, DOT HS 811 629, (accessed March 5, 2014).
7Anthony Foxx, “DOT Effort to Combat Distracted Driving,” Fast Lane blog, U.S. Department of Transportation, November 2013, (accessed March, 5, 2014).
8Anthony Foxx, “Winning the Distraction Marathon,” The Blog, The Huffington Post, November 2013, (accessed March 5, 2014).

Drive to Save Lives
The IACP, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and state police and highway patrol leaders have joined forces for the Drive to Save Lives campaign. Highway fatalities rank as one of the top 12 causes of death in the United States, and it is the leading cause of death among teens.

The campaign is a sustained effort over the course of the year that is data driven; focuses on the use of seat-belts and speeding; and targets impaired and distracted driving. Follow the campaign on twitter at #Drive2SaveLives.

Please cite as:

Amanda Giordano, “Increasing the Focus on Distraction,” Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 81 (April 2014): 82–83.



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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