Strict Federal rules cause states to miss out on grants for distracted driving

There are now more cellphone subscriptions than people in the United States.  Cell phones were involved in 23 percent of all automobile collisions in 2011 contributing to the 3,331 distracted driving deaths that year. Since the first texting ban was issued in Washington State in 2007, 40 other states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have initiated laws banning texting while driving. As a part of MAP-21, the 2012 surface transportation authorization legislation, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) administers a grant program to states which have such bans. The grants are not a sure thing for states however; of the 38 applicants, the DOT reported earlier this month that only 7 states and Guam will receive funding this year.

                The first year of the program had relaxed standards in order to give states time to adjust their laws while still being able to enter the program. The barrier to a successful grant application next year will be even higher—a challenge that will require many state legislatures to amend their distracted driving laws or continue to miss out on future grants as well.

                The difference between a successful application and rejection often came down to defining the terms of the laws. Kentucky’s ban on texting is specific to when the vehicle is in motion. Congress defined “driving” to include “operation while temporarily stationary because of traffic, a traffic light or stop sign, or otherwise.” Other applications were rejected because the state banned specifically cell phones and not all personal electronic devices from use behind the wheel. States must also make texting while driving a primary offense, meaning that officers could stop a vehicle to issue a citation for the sole purpose of a texting while driving violation.

                This year’s grant program required a texting ban and the primary offense standing. In 2014, eligible states will also be required  to prohibit all cell phone use by teenage drivers, and have increased fines for repeat violations of both the texting and youth cell phone use rules. This will require some state legislatures to make non-trivial changes to their traffic policies,  a process that should likely get underway soon in states that want to see successful future grant applications.

                The language of the laws governing this program is rather specific and DOT appears to be administering these grants by the book.  The requirements don’t end once a state receives one of the grants either. Grantee states must use 50 percent of the money for either educating the public about the dangers of cell phone use while driving or on enforcement of distracted driving laws. While the grants  may be challenging  to get and administer, the potential for lives saved should make it worth it for states to traverse the legislative and bureaucratic hurdles that may lie ahead.