Put the Phone Down

Facts, Strategies and Public Outreach for a Hands-Free Indiana

For the full published article, click here.

If someone asked you to close your eyes and count to five while you were driving on a highway, would you do it? It’s not a risk many drivers would take, and yet millions of people behind the wheel inadvertently drive blindly every day. Sending or reading a text or email on your cellphone takes your eyes off the road for about five seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed.

Distracted driving has become the menace of the roadway, with 57 percent of American drivers admitting to texting behind the wheel. And while the majority of Americans (89 percent) think the use of smartphones and other handheld devices is distracting and should be outlawed, technology is just the tip of the distracted driving iceberg.

Currently, 48 states ban text messaging for all drivers, and Indiana recently became the 22nd to prohibit all drivers from using handheld cellphones while behind the wheel. Effective July 1, HB 1070 will become law. A last-minute amendment suspends points being added to the driver’s license until July 1, 2021. To understand how the legislation will be enforced, Hoosiers should familiarize themselves with the different forms of distractions.

What Is Distracted Driving?
Distracted driving is anything that takes your attention away from the road and
can be in the form of a visual, manual or cognitive distraction. Visual distractions, as the name implies, take your eyes off the road and can be as simple as looking at the clock on the dashboard or admiring a countryside landscape or the Indianapolis skyline. Manual distractions take your hands off the wheel, so eating, applying makeup and programming a GPS take attention away from the road.

Cognitive distractions are those of the mind. Anything from talking to another passenger in the vehicle, singing along to music, or eating a granola bar on the way to work can combine any of the three forms, but using smartphones behind the wheel is particularly
dangerous because it distracts you via all three methods. When you send a text, your hands are on the phone, your eyes are on the screen, and your mind is on the message.

Distracted Driving by the Numbers
Simply put, distracted driving is dangerous. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) states that distracted driving claims roughly 3,000 lives each year. Distracted driving may factor into causes of crashes such as improper lane changes and speeding. Studies have shown evidence of drivers learning more about the dangers associated with cellphone use behind the wheel and becoming more aware of their state’s texting while driving laws. The Zebra, a Texas-based insurance comparison website, conducted a survey in February 2020 to identify awareness around texting and driving behavior patterns and drivers’ beliefs. The Zebra found that 36 percent of young drivers (ages 18-24) surveyed admitted to texting while driving, and 55 percent of that same group said they were “very” or “extremely” aware of their state’s texting and driving laws.

Indiana HB 1070
Measures to curb distracted driving have been floating through the Indiana Legislature since 2011 with the state’s texting-while-driving ban. When that statute was deemed unenforceable, Rep. Holli Sullivan (R-78th District) began gathering advocates and partners from Indiana law enforcement, the governor’s office, the Indiana Department of Transportation, as well as other agencies, constituents and the public, not only to rewrite the code to ensure enforcement but also to team up with different agencies to
educate Hoosiers statewide on this new hands-free legislation. This bill is better known as HB 1070. Whether you use technology every day for work or are dependent on smartphone navigation apps to get from A to B, many drivers argue they need access to technology while on the road, but HB 1070 doesn’t prohibit the use of technologies in the vehicle — it just requires a safer way to use it. “You can still use your phone while you’re in your car. We just ask that you do it in a Bluetooth mode or with a hands-free device, such as maybe mounting it on your dashboard or using a Bluetooth speaker, using Siri, [or] many other ways in which you can still use your maps and navigation, even a texting app, just doing it verbally through the speaker,” Sullivan said.

Indiana State Police (ISP) Superintendent Doug Carter testified in support of HB 1070 and said, in addition to being long overdue, the measure is a means to alter the way drivers perceive the danger, similar to government-enforced safety regulations in the past. “I was around as a young state trooper when the seatbelt laws went into effect. The intent there was to change behavior, not to generate revenue, and I feel the same way about this,” Carter said. “We all have this need for instant communication with whoever — a spouse, a child, or access to news, whatever that might be — and it doesn’t matter whether we’re driving or not, so working toward that process of … a [culture] shift is the ultimate goal.”

But there are so many different types of distracted driving. Why focus only on cellphones? The Zebra finds 14 percent of distracted driving deaths in automobile accidents were attributed specifically to cellphone use, as opposed to other forms of distracted driving. “We all know the most likely distraction device in a vehicle is a telecommunications device, so it’s just trying to find a balance,” said Carter. Above all else, HB 1070 is meant to keep Indiana roadways safer. “There will always be many types of distractions around us, and phones are one of the most dangerous,” Sullivan said. “So, the intent of the bill is to purely take the code that has been in Indiana’s statutes since 2011, rewrite it so it’s enforceable and give the officers, as well as our state, the proper tools needed to help educate Hoosiers on the danger and help come alongside them to create new habits within their driving culture.”

HB 1070 passed the Senate 43-4 in early March, after passing the House 86-10. Pending a signature from Gov. Eric Holcomb, Sullivan expects it to go into effect in July 2020. But Indiana government entities, particularly ISP, the Sheriffs Association of Indiana and other law enforcement agencies have been hard at work developing a public outreach campaign. “We would have no intent of enforcing this, at least initially, with a citation. … There can’t be any surprises to our public or to the citizens of our state or those visiting
our state,” Carter said. Sullivan echoed his thoughts on communication being the key to successful implementation. “You’ll see a lot of advertisements from INDOT, agencies across the highways, and you’ll see local communities partnering with corporations and doing a lot of billboards and education and commercials across the state as well.”

Public Outreach
Educating the public is a vital puzzle piece to implementing any new law, and the Indiana Motor Truck Association, along with its partnerships, is doing its part to promote public outreach campaigns. IMTA works with Matrix Entertainment, which facilitates the Save a Life Tour, a nationwide education program that simulates impaired and distracted driving decisions to show driver mistakes in a controlled environment.

Whether the Save a Life Tour stops at a high school to work with freshmen anxiously anticipating their drivers’ tests or educates seasoned drivers on military bases and professional settings, all age groups absorb vital information to understand the catastrophic potential for distracted driving, and the results are tried and true. “We run almost a 90 percent rebooking rate worldwide,” said Frank Mitidieri, senior consultant for the Save a Life Tour. “In some of the states where they’ve had us for four or five years, their department of transportation, through all their surveys and data, [has shown that] we have lowered the rate of teen incidents in the areas where we’ve been for several years.”

IMTA provides the source of funding in the Hoosier State for the program, and Mitidieri said one of its main objectives is to expand that funding to continue educating Indiana’s experienced drivers and to visit more high schools to target new and future drivers. “The young drivers — they’re really trying to focus and make a difference in their counties or cities,” Mitidieri said. “Right now, we just got more funding from [IMTA] to go down to the southern counties in Jasper and French Lick,” before prom and graduation.

Funding is possible because of IMTA’s Put the Phone Down license plate to support safe driving programs throughout Indiana. Since the plate launched in 2014, new sales and renewals have generated $115,075 in funding, with the most being sold in 2019 (750 plates totaling $18,750), and that trend seems to be on the incline. “The sales of that
license plate have spiked since January, so I think that comes from just the education that people are reading in media as we talk about this bill at the statehouse,” Sullivan said. “We share those partners across the state, like the trucking association, and their license plate and [the way] they’re using the sales of those license plates in an education fund to help Hoosiers be aware of this distraction problem on Hoosier highways.”

Simply and effectively, the plate reminds drivers through its typography. In bold, capital letters, the plate reads, “PUT THE PHONE DOWN.” You wouldn’t willingly speed down the
highway with your eyes closed, so why risk lives by driving blindly?

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