Feds say distracted driving programs work, but need more money

High praise for Syracuse, in the effort to crack down on cell phone use and texting while driving. The U.S. Secretary of Transportation congratulated law enforcers here, and says the targeted enforcement, done with a federal grant, cut distracted driving in Syracuse by a third.

Ray LaHood told a media event at SU's Schine Student Center that the models developed here, and in Hartford, Connecticut--each city got a $300,000 grant--will now be used to develop enforcement programs statewide. LaHood says that having tough laws, coupled with strong enforcement and ongoing public awareness, helped make people here aware of the dangers.

'Distracted driving is unsafe,' LaHood told the group of law enforcers, state and federal traffic officials, and law enforcers.'It's irresponsible, and in a split second the consequences can be devastating. There's no call or email that can't wait til you get to your destination.'

Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler told the group that 1 in 5 car crashes in new york have distracted driving as a contributing factor. And that texting while driving increases the chances of a crash 23 times. Driving on a cell equals a distraction level as high as the legal limit of alcohol.

Syracuse Police, along with Troopers and Onondaga County Sheriffs Deputies working at four 'waves' of targeted enforcement in the city issued 9,587 citations for driver violations involving talking or texting on cell phones while operating a vehicle.Before and after each enforcement wave, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) actively observed cell phone use and conducted public awareness surveys at driver licensing offices in the two cities, which found that in Syracuse, because of high-visibility enforcement - both handheld cell phone use and texting behind the wheel have declined by one-third.

New York was the first state to ban cell phone use while driving. There are now 34 states with similar laws, and LaHood says the next step is to pick states that can try the program at the statewide level....and maybe entice some of the ones without distracted driving laws to pass them, in the hunt for money. LaHood says he knows police departments are constrained by budget problems and he wants the federal government to help pay for similar programs elsewhere. Syracuse could get more enforcement money if New York is one of the next enforcement states.

Syracuse's model will be presented to the NY State Police Chief's Association, which meets next week in Lake Placid.

We want to know what you think of this story. Do you think distracted driving is a major problem in New York State? What would you do to change it? Leave a comment below and let us know your opinion.

Information from the Associated Press and U.S. DOT was used in this report.