Distracted driving and teen driver safety are among the top priorities on AAA’s legislative advocacy agenda this year, the motoring organization said today.
While AAA began its campaign against distracted driving in 2009 by pushing for a nationwide ban on texting behind the wheel, recent federal support pledging grant funds for states that improve traffic safety may revitalize such efforts, according to Kathleen Bower, AAA vice president of public affairs.
Efforts Against Distracted Driving Gets Federal Support
The federal government ramped up efforts against distracted driving last year with funding support in several states.
In October, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it was dispersing $275,000 to both Connecticut and Massachusetts to aid anti-texting research efforts there. The research, according to federal officials, would focus on enforcement of anti-texting laws and establishing best practices for officers looking to spot texting drivers.
That followed a summertime announcement from the NHTSA that it was creating a grant program providing a total of $17.5 million to states that improved enforcement against distracted driving, including making such laws a primary offense that allow officers to stop distracted motorists for that violation alone.
According to the AAA, one of the most significant showings of federal support last year was MAP 21, an omnibus transportation law that contains provisions providing an average of $500 million a year in “incentive funding” for states that improve traffic safety. Distracted driving is named in a MAP 21 summary as part of the Department of Transportation’s “aggressive safety agenda.”
States are taking heed, with most instituting bans on texting behind the wheel in one form or another. No driver is allowed to text while driving in 39 states across the U.S., though some states enforce the violation as a secondary offense, meaning an officer can only cite a motorist in addition to another moving violation like speeding.
Ohio, the latest state where a texting prohibition went into effect, enforces its law as a secondary offense for drivers over 18 years old and primary offense for drivers under that age.
Florida is also pursuing a ban on texting while driving and introduced a bill to the state Legislature in December.
But if drivers’ habits are any indication, distracted driving won’t be an easy fix.
A recent State Farm survey showed that smartphones had brought “webbing” into the car, with motorists not only texting but surfing the Internet with mobile devices as they drove. The findings, released in November, also showed that distracted driving rates became higher the younger drivers were.
Distracted driving research may provide even more reason for the nation’s insurance companies to charge younger drivers higher insurance premiums. Shopping for teenage car insurance will yield generally higher insurance prices because that population of motorists has little driving history and is linked in research to be more prone to risky habits behind the wheel like distracted driving.
Michigan Gov. Signs Teen Cell Phone Ban into Law
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill into law Tuesday barring the state’s newest drivers from using a cell phone while driving, joining 33 states and Washington D.C., which have similar bans.
Under the law, which goes into effect March 28, drivers with learner’s permits or intermediate license holders are barred from cell phone use while driving. In Michigan, drivers who are at least 14 years and nine months old are allowed to obtain a learner’s permit after they complete training and a written exam.
Learner’s permit recipients may obtain an intermediate license after they turn 16 years old and pass a driving test. There are driving restrictions, including when the motorist drives and who they carry as passengers, at both levels.
The state still does not bar all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving, a prohibition enforced in 10 states in the U.S.: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia. Washington D.C. also bans use of hand-held cell phones behind the wheel.
AAA Michigan “saluted” Snyder for finalizing the legislation, which is named “Kelsey’s Law” after a 17-year-old girl who was killed while driving and talking on a cell phone.
Fatality Rates Jumped in 2012 in Early Federal Estimates
The AAA expressed urgency over distracted driving after the latest estimates from federal traffic safety officials showed a record jump in fatality rates in the first three quarters of 2012.
According to the NHTSA, preliminary estimates show the number of traffic deaths from January through September of 2012 increased 7.1 percent from the same period in 2011, a jump not seen since 1975. That increase was driven by a significant 13 percent increase between the first quarters of 2012 and 2011.
If those trends hold, they would counter fatality rates that have fallen continually in recent years. Figures in 2011 were nearly 2 percent less than in 2010 and showed the lowest levels in more than 60 years.
But there were signs in 2011 that distracted driving had an impact on fatality rates, according to the NHTSA, which found that, while there was a drop in distraction-related injuries on the road, distraction-related traffic deaths rose 1.9 percent between 2010 and 2011.
“Progress slowed on many fronts for traffic safety advocates last year, but AAA has hope for improvements in 2013,” Bower said in a statement. “Between the heavy toll of highway deaths and the availability of new federal funds, state policymakers have many reasons to act on road safety this year.”