Campaign targets teens: Texting and driving called an ‘epidemic’

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy joined other state officials and representatives of telecommunications and insurance companies to kick off a statewide campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving.

Sept. 19 was  proclaimed as Don’t Text and Drive Day in Connecticut. The message is being especially targeted at teen drivers.

“As long as motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for American teenagers, everyone needs to do their part to ensure our youngest, most inexperienced drivers have the knowledge to make responsible decisions when they get behind a wheel,” Malloy said.

“We are issuing a call to action to all drivers, new and experienced, to help reduce the number of crashes, injuries and deaths associated with distracted driving by remaining focused on the task at hand — operating your motor vehicle safely when under your control,” the governor said.

More distracted teens than older drivers

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2011 motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver resulted in the death of 3,331 people — with 11% of all drivers under age 20 involved in fatal crashes reportedly being distracted at the time of the crash.

Per miles driven, the crash rate for teens 16 to 19 years old is four times higher than for adults — and this crash risk is even higher during the first year a teenager is eligible to drive.

Cell use by drivers banned in state

Connecticut state law prohibits a motor vehicle operator from using a hand-held cell phone or mobile electronic device while the vehicle is in motion. Those over 18 are required by law to have a hands-free device to use a cell phone or mobile electronic equipment.

Drivers ages 16 and 17 years old are prohibited from using a hands-free device as well as a cell or similar-type device — at any time while operating a motor vehicle.

Fines and legal consequences increased

In July, Malloy signed legislation that expands this law to include using a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle at a temporary standstill, such as waiting in an intersection or at a red stop light. The legislation also requires the driver’s license knowledge test to include at least one question on distracted driving.

Malloy also signed separate legislation that increases the fines for distracted driving, requires that the record of such a violation appear in the violator’s driving history and be made available to motor vehicle insurers, and creates a task force to study distracted driving issues and report to the Legislature’s Transportation Committee by Jan. 1, 2014.

Both the new laws signed by Malloy go into effect a few weeks from now, on Oct. 1.

Two-part campaign

The Don’t Text and Drive campaign is comprised of two initiatives aimed at spreading the message to all drivers, but especially teenagers, to concentrate on the road and refrain from diverting attention to a cell phone or other distractions while operating a vehicle.

One is a partnership between the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and AT&T to launch the “It Can Wait” program in Connecticut. The other is the state Department of Motor Vehicle’s (DMV) annual teen safe driving video contest, which is sponsored by both DMV and Travelers Insurance.

The campaign is supported by state and local police, 50 municipalities including Shelton, the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, and the state’s two teacher unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the Connecticut Education Association.

‘Nothing less than an epidemic’

“Distracted driving is nothing less than an epidemic,” Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman said. “And beyond complying with the law, we all need to make a personal commitment to keep ourselves, our families and others on the road safe.

“No one’s life,” she said, “should be lost or put in danger by a driver who thinks that he or she has something better to do than pay attention to the road and the safety of those around them.”

State Attorney General George Jepsen also highlighted the message. “We know the dangers — and the consequences — of distracted driving, particularly for inexperienced drivers,” Jepsen said. “But all drivers, young or old, need to obey the law when it comes to electronic devices. Remember, nothing you have to say is worth risking your life or others.”

DOT Commissioner James P. Redeker said 70% of drivers ages 16 to 18 think “they are capable of texting and driving safely, but driving while texting is similar to driving after having had four beers. It is just not safe.”

Teen video contest deadline is January

DMV’s teen safe driving video contest, “Teen Drivers: Put Your Brakes on Distractions,” is open to high school students statewide. Students enter the contest with a 25-second public service announcement that warns against distracted driving and urges their peers to obey the state’s teen safe driving laws.

Travelers Insurance will provide the five winning high schools with a total of $15,000 in prizes, and students who rank first place in the contest will receive iPads from AT&T. Students will work on the videos during the fall and submit them for judging by mid-January 2014, with awards being announced in early April.

A national effort

Initiated by AT&T and supported by Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, “It Can Wait” includes a national advertising campaign to raise awareness and encourage everyone to take a pledge against texting and driving at

This partnership is introducing “It Can Wait” to high schools across Connecticut through Sept. 25, including the presentation of the initiative’s new documentary, “From One Second to the Next.”

The documentary focuses on the stories of people who are living with the consequences of texting while driving. DOT also will begin a broad initiative to bring a distracted driving program to every high school in the state during the next three years.

Teen graduated driver’s license system

In August 2008, Connecticut enacted new teen graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws that brought an extended curfew, longer periods of passenger restrictions, more comprehensive training, and increased fines and penalties for teens each time they are convicted of using a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle.

GDL laws are designed to delay full licensure while allowing teens to get their initial driving experience under low-risk conditions.

Research conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests that the most comprehensive GDL programs are associated with reductions of 38% and 40% in fatal and injury crashes, respectively, among 16-year-old drivers.

More than 1,000 teen drivers 16 and 17 years old have been convicted since 2007 of using a phone illegally in a vehicle they were driving.