High-Visibility Cell Phone Enforcement
Numerous studies demonstrate that HVE can be effective in curbing alcohol-impaired driving and increasing seat belt use among drivers (see the chapters on Alcohol-Impaired Driving and Seat Belts and Child Restraints). NHTSA has examined whether the HVE model could be effective in reducing handheld cell phone use and texting among drivers.
The objective is to deter cell phone use by increasing the perceived risk of getting caught. The HVE model combines dedicated law enforcement with paid and earned media supporting the enforcement activity. Law enforcement officers actively seek out cell phone users through special roving patrols or through a variety of enforcement techniques such as the spotter technique where a stationary officer will radio ahead to another officer when a driver using a cell phone is detected. Officers report that higher vantage points, SUVs, and unmarked vehicles are strategies useful in identifying violators (Chaudhary et al., 2014). Both earned and paid media are critical to ensure the general public is aware of the enforcement activity and to increase the perception that being caught is likely.
NHTSA conducted an HVE demonstration project aimed at reducing cell phone use among drivers. The program tagline was Phone in one hand. Ticket in the other. Pilot programs were tested in Hartford, Connecticut, and Syracuse, New York, from April 2010 to April 2011. Law enforcement officers conducted four waves of enforcement during the year. Approximately 100 to 200 citations were issued per 10,000 population during each enforcement wave. Paid media (TV, radio, online advertisements, and billboards) and earned media (e.g., press events and news releases) supported the enforcement activity. For more details about the program, see Chaudhary et al. (2014).
To examine the effectiveness of HVE in larger jurisdictions, NHTSA implemented an HVE campaign in Delaware and in nine California counties in the Sacramento area. Three waves of enforcement were conducted from November 2012 to June 2013. Paid and earned media were like that in Hartford and Syracuse. See Schick et al., (2014) and Chaudhary et al. (2015) for more information. Finally, NHTSA undertook a third demonstration program to determine the enforceability of texting laws and to test methods for enforcing these laws. Law enforcement agencies in Connecticut and Massachusetts participated in the program. Four waves of enforcement were conducted in each State in 2013 and 2014 (Retting et al., 2017).
Evaluations have revealed several insights and “lessons learned” for conducting successful enforcement campaigns. Important practices include officer training to ensure officers understand distracted driving laws and recognize the signs of a distracted driver (e.g., lane departure, traveling too slowly); pre-planning of enforcement operations; maximizing resources through local and State agency coordination; and the need for strong distracted driving laws. See Lemaster-Sandbank et al., (2020) and Retting et al. (2017) for more information.
Additionally, NHTSA and the National Traffic Law Center (2017) have developed guidance for successful enforcement and prosecution of distracted driving cases.
Finally, NHTSA has developed a free “virtual live” curriculum on distracted driving program management (U.S. DOT, n.d.) that covers public safety and distracted driving laws. For more details.
To date, many States have implemented HVE programs to address talking on a cell phone and texting while driving. Perhaps the largest effort is Connect to Disconnect, a.k.a. C2D, a distracted driving enforcement and awareness initiative to reduce cell phone use among drivers. The initiative takes place in April each year, and more than 40 States have participated. See for example NHTSA’s Traffic Safety Marketing’s Event Planning Guide (NHTSA, n.d.-b).
Results from the NHTSA HVE program suggest handheld cell phone use among drivers dropped 57% in Hartford and 32% in Syracuse (Chaudhary et al., 2014). The percentage of drivers observed manipulating a phone (e.g., texting or dialing) also declined. Public awareness of distracted driving was already high before the program, but surveys suggest awareness of the program and enforcement activity increased in both Hartford and Syracuse. Surveys also showed most motorists supported the enforcement activity. Similar reductions in cell phone use were observed following the campaign in California (34% reduction) and Delaware (33% reduction), although decreases were also noted in comparison communities (Chaudhary et al., 2015; Schick et al., 2014). Although these results are encouraging, the effect of HVE campaigns on crashes is not certain. An analysis of crash data from before and after the enforcement period found no effects of HVE on the incidence of distraction-related crashes (Chaudhary et al., 2015).
HVE campaigns are expensive. They require time from law enforcement officers to conduct the enforcement. In addition, time is needed from State highway safety office and media staff and often from consultants to develop, produce, and distribute advertising, educational material, and other communications tools. In the NHTSA demonstration program (Chaudhary et al., 2014), both Connecticut and New York received $200,000 to implement and evaluate the program, and each State contributed an additional $100,000 to the Federal funds. Paid media costs for the program in the 2 States were over $500,000.
Time to implement:
An HVE program requires 4 to 6 months to plan and implement.
Challenges enforcing cell phone laws: Enforcement of cell phone use and text messaging laws is challenging. Twenty-six police officers from three Washington State counties participated in focus groups to determine factors that influence consistent enforcement of distracted driving legislation (Nevin et al., 2017). The factors that challenged effective enforcement included inconsistency in what corresponds to legal use of handheld devices, policies that do not extend to all drivers under all situations, and lack of clarity in what constitutes a reportable driving violation. Other factors, including officers’ own beliefs and attitudes towards distractions in their own driving, drivers’ reactions when pulled over, departmental priorities related to distracted driving enforcement, and prevalent local sociocultural norms also affected the success of enforcement practices. Establishment of dedicated traffic patrol units, changes in local public perception through campaigns, and clear delineation between prohibited activities and other electronic device use in the law were identified by focus group participants as important for improving the effectiveness of enforcement. In addition, some focus group participants noted that officer education on distracted driving can bring about a cultural change. The authors developed an educational roll-call video for daily officer briefings that can help curb their own distractions while driving and motivate them to enforce distracted driving (Nevin et al., 2017; see this mp4 video file attached as Appendix B.