‘U Drive, U Text, U Pay’

Drivers know “Click It or Ticket” and “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” as the mantras for national safe-driving programs.

Next up: “U Drive, U Text, U Pay.”

Anyone who pays attention knows that drivers routinely ignore state prohibitions against sending text messages and using hand-held cellphones while driving. Those actions lead to an estimated 424,000 roadway deaths and injuries each year, according to federal statistics.

The challenge in combating the deadly trend has been apparent since then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood launched a campaign against it several years ago: Historically, few Americans can be made to change their ways through gentle persuasion. They need to be threatened.

The “Buckle Up for Safety” jingle was a popular tune, but a loser for changing habits. Not until “Click It or Ticket,” with the threat of consequences, did people being buckling their seat belts.

Driving “a little tipsy” was commonplace for drivers until Mothers Against Drunk Driving began its victim-based campaigns and “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” underscored the consequences with sobriety checkpoints and jail terms.

Now, LaHood’s successor, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, is launching a national television and radio campaign to emphasize that there will be a price paid by those caught sending or receiving text messages while driving.

“We’re launching this campaign to change behavior, much like we did with our work on seat belts,” Foxx said in announcing the effort. “We want drivers across the board to know that if you drive and you text, you pay, because any second not looking at the road is dangerous. People think they can use these devices and drive at the same time. The truth is, they can’t.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this year estimated that every day, nine people die and 1,060 people are hurt in crashes in which distraction is reported as a cause.

Can police effectively crack down on people who are using a small, hand-held device that often is in their laps? Preliminary indications give a qualified yes. If police forces have enough manpower and leadership gets behind the effort, they can have measurable success.

Federally funded test enforcement programs in New York state and Connecticut were hailed as successes. More recently, data to be released Thursday indicate that observed hand-held cellphone use decreased by about 1.5 percent in parts of California and Delaware after crackdowns in which about 18,000 tickets were issued.

“Combining good laws with effective enforcement and a strong public education campaign can — and does — change unsafe driving behavior,” said David Friedman, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Seat belts began clicking when there were penalties to pay, and the term “designated driver” entered the lexicon after drivers who hit the road after drinking took a detour to a jail cell. The greater impact of that enforcement, however, was that those who never faced fines or felt the pinch of handcuffs altered their behavior to avoid it.

“Across the country, we’re putting distracted drivers on notice: If you’re caught texting while driving, the message you receive won’t be from your cellphone, but from law enforcement,” Foxx said.

The $8.5 million national advertising campaign — in English and Spanish — will begin Monday in advance of the planned crackdown from April 10-15.

Since LaHood began the
distracted-driving campaign, the District and 43 states, including Virginia and Maryland, have banned texting while driving. Twelve states, including the District and Maryland, also ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving; and 37 states and the District ban cellphone use by novice drivers.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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