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Letter: Distracted Driving - A Serious Problem for All

As we all know, distracted driving has become a very serious problem for our state and our country. In New York State at least one out of five motor vehicle crashes has distracted driving listed as a contributing factor. In 2009, nearly 5,500 people died in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver and more than 440,000 were injured.

As commissioner of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles and chair of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee, I was honored to be invited recently to attend U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s second Summit on Distracted Driving in Washington, D. C. Also participating at that meeting were leading national transportation officials, safety advocates, law enforcement agencies, industry representatives, researchers and victims affected by distraction-related crashes. Together we addressed challenges and identified opportunities for national anti-distracted driving efforts.

Secretary LaHood refers to distracted driving as a “deadly epidemic.” I could not agree more. As part of the Secretary’s Distracted Driving initiative, New York was one of only two states selected to receive a $300,000 Federal grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a pilot program that targets distracted driving. The pilot project was launched in Syracuse last April.

The Syracuse program, entitled “Phone in One Hand. Ticket in the Other,” uses a combination of high visibility enforcement and increased public education to convince motorists to put down their cell phones while driving. For the public education component, a public service announcement focusing on the dangers of distracted driving was developed that features several different motorists talking on their cell phones or texting while driving and the crashes that result from their inattention. For the enforcement component, the first 10-day wave in April resulted in 2,300 tickets being issued for either talking on a cell phone or texting while driving. The second wave in July resulted in nearly 2,150 tickets being issued. A third wave of education and enforcement is scheduled for October with the final wave being conducted next April.

In conjunction with the Distracted Driving Summit, the National Highway Traffic Safety Committee released a distracted driving report on results of the Syracuse program thus far. According to that report, since the inception of the program, hand-held phone use while driving dropped 38 percent and texting while driving decreased 42 percent in Syracuse.

We have also taken a number of other steps to reduce the incidents of distracted driving statewide. Last November a law took effect in New York State that limits the use of portable electronic devices while driving, which includes texting while driving. Between January and June of this year more than 152,000 tickets were handed out statewide for talking on a cell phone while driving. In the same time period nearly 1,000 tickets were handed out for texting while driving, which is currently a secondary offense. On July 1, 2010, the state Assembly unanimously passed legislation proposed by Governor Paterson strengthening the text messaging ban and making it a primary offense. The legislation is currently awaiting State Senate action.

As with other nationalized models, such as the number of people who wear seat belts compared to the numbers when seat belt laws were first introduced, it takes time for motorists to change their behaviors. Combating distracted driving takes the consistent efforts of our law enforcement partners and targeted public education. We are hopeful that the results of our project in Syracuse, as well as our other efforts, will help lead to a national model for combating the dangers of distracted driving. But to truly bring about change will require that we all avoid the temptation to use our cell phones or engage in other distracted behaviors while driving.

David J. Swarts

Commissioner, NYS Department of Motor Vehicles and

Chair, Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee