By STEPHEN DOCKERY, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Distracted-driving violations have fallen dramatically in Hartford and Syracuse, N.Y., as a result of high-visibility police programs, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Monday.

LaHood said cash-strapped police departments around the country could benefit from subsidies to enforce bans against talking and texting while driving, but critics say that money may be hard to come by as states that are wrangling with major deficits.

Each of the pilot programs in the two Northeastern cities relied on $300,000 _ $200,000 in federal money and $100,000 from the state _ to pay police departments to enforce the state’s distracted driving laws and advertise about the issue. Citations were issued to almost 10,000 drivers in each city over the past year. The idea was to see whether stepped-up enforcement would lead to fewer violations.

Hartford had a 57 percent drop in talking while driving and a nearly 75 percent drop in texting and driving, transportation officials said. Syracuse saw a 33 percent drop in distracted driving. The study’s reports were based on observational studies.

LaHood said Monday on a conference call with reporters that he knows police departments are constrained by budget problems.

“We’re not faulting police departments. They have many things that they have to do,” LaHood said.
LaHood, who said distracted driving kills thousands of people every year, wants the federal government to help pay for similar subsidy programs elsewhere. He said the study proved tough laws, strong enforcement and public awareness made the difference in reducing violations.

David Teater, a senior director at the nonprofit National Safety Council in Itasea, Ill., said the cost saved from accidents averted far outstrips the expense of such programs.

“I think it’s a no-brainer when it comes to the cost,” Teater said.

But funding for expanded enforcement programs might be difficult to find.

Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the nonprofit Governors Highway Safety Association in Washington, D.C., said it will be difficult to keep up any such enforcement programs as states make severe cutbacks to close budget deficits.

“You have to be able to sustain these types of campaigns,” Adkins said. “If the public doesn’t expect to get a ticket, we would expect usage to go back up.”

Adkins said the priority of his organization, which represents highway safety agencies in every state, remains on the three top issues: seat belt usage, drunk driving and speeding.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)


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