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Texting while driving: Connecticut, Massachusetts to use police spotters to catch culprits in federal test

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The U.S. Department of Transportation says it's easier for police to spot a motorist chatting on a cellphone than it is to catch someone texting while driving.

The federal government is giving $550,000 to Connecticut and Massachusetts for pilot projects to crack down on people who text while driving.

Each state is getting $275,000 grants to develop “high-visibility anti-texting enforcement programs,” which will include stationing police spotters on highway overpasses looking for motorists who can’t keep their fingers off the keypad.

 “We have come a long way in our fight against distracted driving, but there is still much work to be done,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday in announcing the grants. “Texting behind the wheel is especially dangerous, which is why we’re working with states like Connecticut and Massachusetts to address this important safety issue.”

The money will be used to develop and train police officers on better methods for spotting texting drivers, and to develop media campaigns that alert the public to the dangers of texting and driving.

The Department of Transportation says distracted driving has become even more dangerous with the proliferation of cellphones. In 2010, more than 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving crashes that included texting, talking on a cellphone, eating and drinking, grooming, and other activities.

The agency cites research that found drivers who use handheld devices are four times more likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves.  Text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted, according to research.

Thirty-nine states have laws on the books that specifically ban texting, and 10 states have laws that prohibit the use of handheld cell phones while driving, according to federal transportation officials. 

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Despite such laws, prior demonstration programs conducted in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y., found that it's more difficult to detect texting drivers than drivers talking on a handheld device, the Transportation Department said.  The vast majority of tickets issued under those programs were for handheld phone use – only about 5 percent were for texting violations.

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“While it is relatively easier for law enforcement to determine illegal handheld cellphone use by observing the position of the phone at the driver’s ear, the dangerous practice of texting while driving is often not as obvious,” said David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in a press release. “These two new demonstration programs will help identify real-world protocols and practices to better detect if a person is texting while driving.”

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The grants will help Connecticut and Massachusetts develop anti-texting enforcement protocols and techniques, such as using stationary patrols, spotters on overpasses or elevated roadways and roving patrols. The results will be documented for the benefit of other states.

“I look forward to seeing the results of the new enforcement programs announced today as we work to put an end to this deadly behavior,” LaHood wrote Tuesday on  the Transportation Department’s fastlane.dot.gov blog

You can find more government information on distracted driving at distraction.gov.

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