The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) strengthened its policy position on distracted driving at its recent annual meeting, expanding its support of legislation that bans handheld cell-phone use by all motorists.
Previously, the association supported text-messaging bans for all drivers and a total ban on electronic devices for novice and school bus drivers.
Talking on a handheld phone is banned in 10 states and the District of Columbia, while the use of all cellphones when driving a school bus is prohibited in 19 states and D.C. Additionally, 39 states and D.C. ban texting while driving for all motorists. Individual school districts may also prohibit school bus drivers from talking or texting on cell phones while behind the wheel.
Recent enforcement demonstration projects sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the state departments in New York and Connecticut showed that a handheld cell phone ban can be effectively enforced and reduce motorists’ cell-phone usage.
Although texting and handheld bans are both critical, texting bans by themselves can be difficult for law enforcement to enforce, the GHSA stated. Often, in states without a handheld law, drivers will claim they were dialing when stopped by police for texting. This is the case in California, which saw 460,487 statewide handheld cell phone convictions in 2011 but only 14,886 texting convictions, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS).
GHSA Executive Director Barbara Harsha noted that GHSA’s new policy sends a clear message to drivers that cell phone use while driving is not acceptable.
“Passage of these laws will provide states a practical platform for discussing why any phone use while driving is dangerous,” said Harsha.
Meanwhile, the California OTS reported a 22-percent decline in overall traffic deaths in states that have laws prohibiting motorists from using handheld cell phones while driving. Researchers also found that fatalities of motorists who used handheld cell phones decreased by 47 percent. The Safe Transportation Research and Education Center (SafeTrec) at the University of California, Berkeley reviewed traffic crash records two years before and two years after state laws went into effect.
“These results suggest that the law banning handheld cell phone use while driving had a positive impact on reducing traffic fatalities and injuries,” said Dr. David Ragland, director of SafeTrec.
Earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration voiced concern about driver distraction due to use of electronic devices. NHTSA issued guidance to address sources of distraction that require use of the hands and/or diversion of the eyes from the primary task of driving. The guidelines were released just days after President Obama’s 2013 budget called for $330 million to fund distracted driving programs.
Last December, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all 50 states and D.C. outlaw the use of all forms of wireless communication while driving.