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Federal Grant Allows Better Enforcement Of Distracted Driving Laws.

Currently, 38 states ban texting and driving and the number is climbing every year. Putting these laws in place is just one piece of the pie though when it comes to stopping the  deadly practice of driving while texting. Unfortunately, police officers around the country have had a difficult time of enforcing these laws. A new federal grant is providing funds for police departments to experiment with spying on motorists to help stop texting and driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced a $550,000 grant that will allow police departments in Massachusetts and Connecticut to test out a variety of anti-texting strategies over the next two years. The money will fund everything from roving patrol cars to ad campaigns aimed at texters. The hope is to find real world practices and protocols that will make enforcement of these laws easier.

Texting while driving is a dangerous habit. It creates a crash risk that is 23 times worse than driving while not distracted. When sending or receiving a text a driver takes their eyes off the road for roughly 4.6 seconds which means a driver will cover the length of a football field at 55 mph. In 2010 there were 416,000 injuries that were caused by distracted driving and 3,092 fatalities. It’s clear that there need to be some new techniques for enforcement. 

The problem lies in proving that drivers are texting rather than looking at a map or other permitted uses. While it’s true that 38 states have banned texting and driving, only 10 states have banned all hand-held cell phone use when driving. This means that in the states with a texting ban, pulling someone over for simply holding the phone does not warrant a ticket. In most of these states, officers have to witness a driver typing with their thumb to pull them over.  Because of these requirements, enforcement is difficult, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota police wrote a mere 1,200 tickets for texting but over 200,000 for speeding.

The grant will help cover the cost of overpass spotters who will spot and identify drivers who are typing. This type of strategy has already proven effective. In Bismarck, N.D. the local police managed to write 31 texting while driving tickets using unmarked, high-riding SUVs to look down in vehicles, catching texters in the act of typing out messages.

There are many safety groups that have called for the complete ban of cellphones when drivers are behind the wheel. Unfortunately, these proposals have not met with wide support in Congress or even at the state legislature level. There is currently no federal agency that has any control over completely banning cellphone use and there is still a debate concerning the dangers of distracted driving when compared to drunk driving and other well documented driving dangers. Despite the fact that thousands of people have died due to distracted driving, there is a good chance that enforcement consisting of police spying on drivers from SUVs is bound to experience pushback from privacy advocates. The result of this grant could affect distracted driving enforcement for years to come.