LaHood Wants Police to Issue More Distracted Driving Tickets

U.S. Secretary of Transportation secretary Ray LaHood was in Syracuse, New York, on Monday, touting two pilot programs that have reduced distracted driving through increased police enforcement.

LaHood took the occasion to call for more money for traffic police to replicate the efforts elsewhere.

The pilot programs were meant to determine if increased "high-visibility enforcement" of distracted driving laws would reduce the practice.

At the start of the program last year, Transportation Nation went to Syracuse and rode along with one of the traffic officers. At the time, our reporter observed that not more than six minutes went by without a driver passing while talking or texting on a cell phone.

Under the pilot program, Syracuse stepped up ticketing of distracted driving, even assigning officers to overtime to ticket as many driving texters as they could and using DUI-style check points.  There was a public awareness campaign with snappy slogans like, "a cell phone in one hand, a ticket in the other." Hartford had a similar program.

Both cities issued almost 10,000 tickets during the past year. Hartford saw a 57 percent drop in talking on the phone while driving and a72 percent fall in texting while driving. In Syracuse there was a 33 percent drop overall.

The cities paid for the pilots with a mix of federal and state grants. Each city received $200,000 in federal money and $100,000 in state funds. LaHood took the occasion today to call for more money for this kind of enforcement. He said cash strapped police departments aren't likely to find the money for this kind of project without state and federal help. But the safety benefits are worth it he says.

According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, more than 5,000 people were killed, and nearly half a million were injured because of distracted driving in 2009. The overall number of crashes and deaths due to cell phone use while driving has been declining since a peak in 2007.