Apr 2, 2024 - Health

"Put the Phone Away or Pay" campaign targets distracted driving

Illustration of a roadway on a cracked phone screen.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Highway safety regulators are kicking off a new campaign to reduce distracted driving, particularly targeting younger drivers who are the most likely to die in distraction-related crashes.

Why it matters: Distracted driving is a major cause of U.S. traffic deaths and injuries. Such behaviors soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to a spike in road fatalities.

Driving the news: Law enforcement agencies will be cracking down on distracted driving under the government's "Put the Phone Away or Pay" campaign, which launched Monday.

  • The campaign's "high-visibility enforcement" portion runs April 4-8, and targets drivers 18 to 34.
  • Fines average $100 in most states, but are as high as $1,000 in Oregon.

By the numbers: New National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data shows signs of progress, although fatalities remain high.

  • 40,990 people died in traffic crashes in 2023, NHTSA estimates — a decrease of about 3.6% compared to 2022's 42,514 fatalities.
  • 3,308 people died and an estimated 289,310 more were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2023. Among those fatalities, 621 were pedestrians or bicyclists.

Zoom in: 27 states and Washington, D.C., have laws banning drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving.

  • Teen drivers are banned from all cellphone use in 36 states and D.C.
  • Every state except Montana bans text messaging while driving.

Between the lines: A new study finds that state laws banning handheld phones while driving can be an effective deterrent.

  • Distracted driving dropped by an average of 6.6% in Michigan, Ohio and other states after they passed hands-free laws, according to the research, released last week by the Governors Highway Safety Association and Cambridge Mobile Telematics.
  • The study was based on information from phones' sensors that drivers voluntarily shared with their insurance companies in hopes of earning a "good driver" discount.

Yes, but: Distracted driving crept up again once the initial buzz about the new policies subsided.

Reality check: There are lots of other reasons people get distracted behind the wheel, including eating, talking or adjusting the radio or other controls.

The big picture: NHTSA is implementing a range of measures to reduce traffic deaths and improve road safety.

  • It's mandating pedestrian detection systems, for example, and exploring sophisticated alcohol detection technologies.
  • U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg aims to make deadly road crashes seem "as quaint and as antiquated as losing your life to dysentery on the Oregon Trail," he told Axios' Mike Allen at the What's Next Summit last month.

Flashback: Getting Americans to wear seatbelts was a decades-long effort. Today, 91% of people buckle up, according to government data.

The bottom line: Hands-free cellphone laws could be an effective deterrent to distracted driving, but only if they're enforced equitably and drivers are frequently reminded of the rules.

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