West Virginia University is getting a $182,000 federal grant to study whether states' laws limiting or banning cellphone use while driving are having any effect on driver safety.
Researchers in the School of Public Health will look at the regulations on texting and talking, how they're being enforced and whether they're affecting accident rates among drivers under 25.
Dr. Motao Zhu, the principal investigator, said the project will run through 2015. He will be analyzing data from various sources, including one study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on youth driving habits and a separate one based on visual observation of drivers at traffic lights.
The number-crunching will go back about a decade, and Zhu said he expects to publish one or two articles a year, along with a final report.
Funding for the study comes from the Department of Health and Human Services' Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who announced the grant Wednesday with fellow Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, said he hopes the research will produce useable results that could help make the nation's highways safer.
"Studying the effectiveness of state laws that limit or ban cellphone use while driving is an investment in the safety of our nation's roads," he said. "Distracted driving hurts the driver, passengers, and everyone on the road, and we must do everything we can to prevent it."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says nearly 3,100 people died in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2010, while another 416,000 were injured. It also says 40 percent of American teens say they've been in a car with a driver who was using a cellphone in a way that put other people in danger.
Rockefeller introduced a bill to combat distracted driving in 2009 and has held roundtables and committee hearings on distracted driving and highway safety.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says the District of Columbia and 10 states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia — have banned handheld phone use by all drivers.
The West Virginia law, which went into effect last year, makes texting a primary offense that could result in a $100 fine. The law also bans hands-on phone use, but that won't be a primary offense triggering a traffic stop until July 2013.
At least 24 states in all have banned texting and made it a primary offense, while five have banned texting for novice drivers.
More than 220 million Americans subscribe to wireless services, and the NCSL estimates that as many as 80 percent use their phones while driving
National Conference of State Legislatures: http://bit.ly/13hbHnx