Could “Safe Phone Zones” Help Stop Distracted Driving?

The Governors Highway Safety Association has given a thumbs-up to plans by Illinois and other states to create designated zones for drivers to use their cellphones.

If you can’t beat ’em, give ’em a spot to tweet.

That appears to be the strategy that the state of Illinois is taking as it adds six “Safe Phone Zones” to the Illinois Tollway in the coming weeks. The effort, conducted in cooperation with Travelers Marketing, is designed to give motorists designated spots to look at their phones, so they don’t do it while they’re stuck in traffic.

The new zones, which piggyback off the system’s existing traffic oasis locations, include free WiFi and places to sit.

The initiative is getting some big-time love from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), which represents state highway-safety groups nationwide. Executive Director Jonathan Adkins said that the strategy is smart because it discourages distracted driving while conceding that there are legitimate reasons for using mobile phones on the road.

“You can’t just have an educational approach or a law enforcement approach to combat distracted driving,” Adkins told the Chicago Sun-Times. “You have to have engineering as well, and that’s what this is, because by creating these Safe Phone Zones it acknowledges that drivers need or want to communicate while on trips.”

Illinois isn’t the first state to try phone zones. Travelers Marketing has also worked on similar systems in Virginia and Arizona. And a network of “Texting Zones” showed up in New York state in 2013.

Distracted driving is becoming an increasing concern nationwide. In 2013,  a GHSA study [PDF] found that 43 states and the District of Columbia were treating the issue more seriously than they had in the past. At the time of the survey, 47 states and Washington, DC, had laws banning mobile phone use while driving, with many states specifically banning texting and 11 specifically banning hand-held cellphone use on the road.

“Driving is a complex task that requires mental, physical, visual, and auditory attention,” the study states. “Whether the driving activity occurs on a congested urban roadway or a deserted rural highway, doing anything but concentrating on the driving task puts a driver, passengers, and other road users at an increased risk of being involved in a crash.”

It’s not clear whether specific zones will be enough to balance the need for communication with the need for safety, but GHSA’s Adkins is hopeful.

“It’s not a magic bullet, but it’s part of the solution,” he told the Sun-Times.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, second from left, helps launch the state's Safe Phone Zone program. (State of Illinois)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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