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NHTSA Launches Grant Program to Tackle Distracted Driving

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today issued an ambitious plan called the "Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving." In addition to providing steps to help curb road deaths caused by drivers using cell phones or other electronics at the wheel, today's announcement provides $2.4 million in grants to help law enforcement agencies catch distracted drivers.

Since his appointment as Transportation Secretary in 2009, LaHood has focused much of his energy on tackling distracted driving -- drivers whose attention is drawn from the road by phone calls, text messages, or using other electronic devices. Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveal that 3092 people were killed by distracted drivers in 2010, a figure that represents one in ten driver fatalities in the U.S. Moreover, the agency says its data suggests that 100,000 drivers are sending text messages at any given time.

One part of the "Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving" involves a $2.4 million grant to Delaware and California. The money will fund programs aimed at cracking down on drivers violating those states' distracted-driving laws. Based on the success of the "Click It Or Ticket" seatbelt campaign, NHTSA hopes increased funding for the "Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other" program will reduce the number of people using phones behind the wheel. The programs begin this fall in the entire state of Delaware, and eight counties in the Sacramento valley of California.

The safety agency is drawing on experience last year that involved trial enforcement programs in Hartford, Connecticut, and Syracuse, New York. After several months of increased ticketing for drivers using phones, Hartford saw the number of distracted drivers drop 72 percent, while Syracuse saw a 32-percent drop. The idea is that a fear of being ticketed, as well as increased media coverage of the enforcement efforts, will encourage drivers to follow state laws.

The remainder of the "Blueprint" includes guidelines to help further tackle the problem. One part of the proposal would encourage states without anti-texting laws to add them. NHTSA also will encourage automakers to consider driver distraction when developing future vehicles. The agency already released a set of guidelines on in-car technologies earlier this year, and hopes to build on them with more in-depth guidelines over the coming months and years.

One final step in the proposal is to help driver's education companies add training and information about distracted driving to their programs. The agency wants a special focus on teaching novice and learner drivers about the dangers of using a phone while driving. That's because NHTSA data suggests drivers under 25 are three times more likely than older drivers to send text messages or emails at the wheel. We've reported before that teenage drivers, despite knowing the risks, continue to text while driving.

Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation, NHTSA