Using these tools with distracted driving, there are some caveats. First, engineering that changes the roadway infrastructure or leads to new smartphone safety technology will not alter outcomes if drivers will not pay attention to the roadway or use the technology. Second, although we've made tremendous gains in distracted driving awareness efforts, education only goes so far in changing behavior.
At the Syracuse Police Department, we know that what adds value to education; pushes people to technology; and gets people to pay attention is enforcement.
Behavior and perception shape our culture, and law enforcement is in a unique position to influence behavior and perception. Our tool to change an unsafe driving culture? High Visibility Enforcement.
And it's not a new idea.
And it has changed largely because of a boost in strict enforcement.
The template--informing the public that traffic safety laws will be strictly enforced followed by high visibility, zero-tolerance enforcement, culminating in publicizing enforcement data--changes driver behavior.
For example, New York’s version of the national Click It or Ticket program started with a 12% compliance rate in 1984. Today, New York State has a steady seatbelt compliance rate of 93%. Our culture has changed so significantly that parents today would never think of transporting their children without using a safety restraint. And it is now routine for non-seatbelt wearers to receive tickets--and not complain that their police have something better to do, as was the case in the 1980s.
New York’s adaptation of the national Over the Limit/Under Arrest campaign instituted a culture change for police and society overall. From its inception in 1981 to the year 2000, New York experienced a 70% decline in alcohol related fatalities in crashes. These gains have never been lost.
Where law enforcement used to give drunks rides home, we now practice zero tolerance, with the public demanding that arrests be made.
How do these efforts spread the word so effectively and initiate change? We need look no further than a business customer service model. This model postulates that every 1 satisfied customer will tell 3 others about their positive interaction. Every dissatisfied customer tells 300 people about their negative experience.
Giving a violator a ticket creates our “dissatisfied customer.” We seek out these “dissatisfied customers” (traffic violators) because they are going to spread our message, "If we catch you, then expect a ticket."
Slowly, but surely, culture begins to change, and law enforcement was a change agent in both of these programs.
So, why not distracted driving? Why not target the most dangerous driving distraction –cell phone use? Why not use the template that has worked so well for seatbelts and impaired driving?
Thankfully, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set out to find out. My city, Syracuse, New York, was lucky enough to be selected as a test site. Following the aforementioned models, we conducted high visibility enforcement with assistance from the Sheriff’s Office and the State Police.
In only 1,370 enforcement hours, 9,587 tickets were issued for cell phone use. When you include the dangerous driving offenses that were seen resulting from drivers using their cell phones, you can add another 7,410 tickets issued.
How did that affect driver behavior? After the statisticians checked the numbers against a control city, Syracuse achieved a 38% reduction in cell phone use and a 42% reduction in texting.
Those of us on the front lines of traffic safety think this is a pretty good start.
The challenge now is for communities across New York State--and wherever there are distracted driving laws--to adopt an approach that we know can change the culture of cell phone use behind the wheel and help make our roads safer.