Figuring Out How to Target Distracted Driving in Connecticut

Apr 5, 2016

The state is trying to find ways to convince people to put down their phones while they drive.

It’s national distracted driving awareness month again, which means police will be out on the state’s roads and highways checking to see if you’re using your phone while you're driving. But it’s a targeted effort and not all police departments participate. 

The state says that about seven percent of all Connecticut crashes last year were caused by distracted driving. And that’s a conservative estimate.

That’s because the data relating distracted driving to traffic accidents isn’t perfect. It’s one of those things underreported by police, who might rightly attribute a crash to, say, a lane departure or a rear-end collision. It’s also hard to prove an accident happened because of a phone unless there’s a witness.

So the state uses the data itself along with observational feedback, and it asks itself a question: Where are people most likely to pick up their cell phones while driving?

“People were more likely to be distracted by mobile phones at places like intersections, places where it naturally slows,” said Aaron Swanson with the state Department of Transportation. He said that while you very well could get pulled over on a state highway, that’s not where the bulk of the violations -- or the enforcement -- will be.

“As you slow down, I think the tendency... as you come to a stop, is to look down, check your phone, pick it up," Swanson said. "And that’s also where law enforcement tends to see crashes happen.”

Connecticut picks about 50 departments to participate, along with the state police. About $2 million comes from the federal government to help pay for the police overtime needed for the project. Towns and cities that use it have to pay a 25 percent match. Swanson says the project can only really work with that paid overtime.

“To really change a behavior, you have to have law enforcement dedicated to looking for that specific behavior," he said.  

You also need a big media buy. So the state will likely spend a few hundred thousand dollars on advertising to convince people to put down their phones while they drive.