Federally funded pilot projects in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., measured the effect of increased law enforcement coupled with high-profile public education campaigns.
"These findings show that strong laws, combined with highly visible police enforcement, can significantly reduce dangerous texting and cellphone use behind the wheel," LaHood said in a statement. "Based on these results, it is crystal clear that those who try to minimize this dangerous behavior are making a serious error in judgment, especially when half a million people are injured and thousands more are killed in distracted driving accidents."
Each pilot program was supported by $200,000 in federal funds and $100,000 from the state. A department statement said the pilot programs used "Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other" as the media campaign theme, and were modeled on the highly successful national seat belt campaign, "Click It or Ticket."
During four periods of stepped-up enforcement over the past year, Syracuse police issued 9,587 citations for driver violations involving talking or texting on cellphones while operating a vehicle. During the same period, police in Hartford issued 9,658 tickets for illegal phone use.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, before and after the enforcement push, observed cellphone use and conducted public awareness surveys at driver licensing offices in the two cities, the department said.
Both handheld cellphone use and texting behind the wheel in Syracuse declined by one-third, the department said.
The results in Hartford were even more dramatic. Researchers initially identified Hartford drivers talking on their cellphones at twice the frequency of Syracuse, but there was a 57 percent drop in handheld use and texting behind the wheel dropped by nearly three-quarters after the pilot effort.
The department said NHTSA plans to test the same three-part formula (tough laws, strong enforcement and public awareness) at an unidentified statewide level next.
In 2009, the department statement said, nearly 5,500 fatalities and another half-million injuries resulted from crashes involving a distracted driver. Overall, distraction-related fatalities represented 16 percent of total traffic fatalities in 2009.
Thirty-four states, the District of Columbia and Guam have enacted texting-while-driving bans. Nine states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands have banned all handheld cellphone use while driving.