Police officers can’t pull you over for eating, reading, putting on makeup, or shaving while driving. But in a growing number of states, you can get a ticket for talking or texting on a cell phone. Because the laws are rarely enforced, many do it anyway. The Department of Transportation, however, has decided something has to be done about the growing problem of distracted driving.

On April, 8, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the first enforcement crackdown campaign on distracted driving. 
He said, “It’s time for drivers to act responsibly, put their hands on the wheel and focus on the road.” USDOT is funding pilot programs in Hartford, CT and Syracuse, NY to test whether increased law enforcement efforts and increased public advertising can make drivers stop talking or texting on hand-held cell phones. This is the first federally funded effort to curb distracted driving and is modeled on other DOT efforts to curb drunk driving and increase seat belt use. The Department has launched a new website for the effort, www.distraction.gov. The simple message is “Phone in One Hand. Ticket in the Other.”

According to the DOT press release, the first high visibility enforcement was conducted in the Syracuse metropolitan area from April 8 through 17, and the crackdown in the Hartford metropolitan area took place from April 10 through 16. There will be additional enforcement waves in both states throughout the course of the yearlong program.

Each pilot program is supported by $200,000 in federal funds and matched by $100,000 from the state. Researchers will study changes in attitudes and behavior throughout the next year in both locations and apply what is learned to other cities and states across the country.

“There is no question that high-visibility enforcement combined with effective public advertising works. We’ve seen the results first-hand with national campaigns like Click It or Ticket and Drunk Driving. Over The Limit. Under Arrest,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “Distracted driving is a growing problem—the numbers tell the story of these preventable tragedies.”

Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that in 2008 alone, nearly 6,000 people were killed and more than a half million people were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver nationwide. Almost 20 percent of all crashes that same year involved some type of distraction.

On April 12, a local news outlet in Syracuse reported that 1000 tickets were issued since April 8. Captain Shannon Trice, commanding officer of the traffic division in Syracuse told the reporter that the only legal way to talk on a phone in the car is with a Bluetooth or other similar device and that putting a phone on speaker does not make it legal.