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Grants to help eliminate distracted drivers only given to a handful of states

Traffic safety advocates have shifted their focus and energies to combat distracted driving, especially among young drivers. In fact, former U.S. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood’s signature legislature focused on a national ban to eliminate texting while driving. But the first-ever grants approved by Congress last year to encourage states to enact texting-while-driving laws has not been as effective as hoped.

How did the grant funding bill work?

The national transportation bill passed by Congress last year supplied grants to states who passed laws allowing police officers to stop drivers for texting while driving their automobile. At first states seemed eager to apply for the grants, but due to confusion in the laws and some of the definitions used, few of the states actually qualified for the grants offered under the new law. According to Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, he expected upwards of 30 states to qualify. Unfortunately, only Guam and seven dates actually did. Where is the disconnect? Some of the states did not have laws which clearly specified what devices could be used for texting. For instance, states which only banned texting on cell phones did not receive the grants. Other state laws outlawed texting while the car was in motion but did not make it illegal for drivers to text while they were temporarily stopped at traffic stops. Still other laws only banned texting itself, not other distracting actions such as surfing the Web while operating a motorized vehicle.

What does the U.S. Department of Transportation think?

Although advocates of more governmental intervention to eliminate distracted driving were disappointed with the outcome of the grant program, the U.S. Department of Transportation responded saying they are “committed to safeguarding the driving public and will continue to aggressively address the unsafe practice of distracted driving through driver- and vehicle-based strategies." States such as North Carolina countered arguing that they believed they had made the necessary updates to their laws to get some of the rare funding for distracted-driving. In fact, the director of the North Carolina Governor's Highway Safety Program programs noted that he had expected up to $200,000-$300,000.  North Carolina had hoped that the money from the federal grants could be directed to a social media campaign targeted at the individuals who are most likely to text and drive. North Carolina, however, did not get the grant money because their state continued to allow drivers to text when they were stopped and did not outlaw the use of other devices (other than cell phones) to text while driving. The state of Kentucky also lost up to $100,000 for similar reasons, although they have been enforcing a ban on texting since January 2011.

What states did receive grants?

States that met the federal government’s requirements include Arkansas, Georgia, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Guam. Georgia also won a $1.6 million grant for the texting ban the state has enforced since July 1, 2010.
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