Starting today, police officers will be out in force across Connecticut pulling over drivers who are using handheld mobile phones.

The Distracted Driving campaign, U Drive. U Text. U Pay., which runs from Aug. 1-15, is now in its fourth year.  State officials with the Department of Transportation said progress has been made since the program’s inception.

DOT officials said that during the first wave of the campaign, in April, more than 10,000 citations were issued to motorists who “chose to ignore Connecticut’s distracted driving laws.” This is considerably more than are handed out during normal enforcement periods, they said.

“Anecdotally law enforcement says it’s getting harder to find offenders,” said Aaron Swanson, manger of DOT’s Distracted Driver Program. “It could be due in part to a number of factors, but what we do know is that this campaign works.”

Last year, before the enforcement period began, 8 percent of drivers were using handheld mobile phones, according to an observational study performed by Preusser Research Group. After the enforcement period ended, only 6.4 percent of drivers were using cellphones.

The study also determined that, unlike with speeding, handheld mobile device usage does not have a halo effect. In other words, the specific location of where tickets are administered does not matter; the entire town will see a decrease in distracted driving.

“As long as you are enforcing at one point in the town, distracted driving will decrease across the board,” said Neil K. Chaudhary, CEO of Preusser Research Group.

Although it can be difficult for law enforcement officers to catch offenders, Connecticut bans all usage of handheld mobile phones while driving .

The highest number of crashes in Connecticut due to distracted driving occur in the urban areas – primarily surrounding Hartford and New Haven. Nationally, there were 3,450 distracted driving related deaths in 2016, while an estimated 391,000 people were injured in distracted driving motor vehicle crashes in 2015, according to the DOT.

Although there was no increase in the percent of drivers using handheld devices between the two enforcement periods of 2017 , the number climbed back up to 8 percent between August of 2017 and April of 2018.

“It was potentially too long a period without high enforcement,” Chaudhary said, adding that the heightened enforcement did not have a long-lasting effect, which is also seen with DUI enforcement. “It might be more similar to alcohol. It has been described as addictive or at least habit forming.”

For that reason, Chaudhary recommends sustained or more frequent enforcement in order to keep distracted driving rates low.

Since its launch in 2015, the initiative has been funded by federal distracted driving prevention funds totaling $9.1 million over the past 3 years. In the coming years the program hopes to receive approximately $2.3 million each year for continued enforcement efforts.

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