NORTHAMPTON — After half a century of declining car-crash deaths nationwide, traffic fatalities spiked in 2015 across the country as part of a trend that preliminary data suggest is reflected in Massachusetts as well.
Against that grim backdrop, the state’s highway safety chief is pushing educational and enforcement campaigns to prevent what he sees as one of the prime culprits behind the spike: distracted driving.
“By and large, it is these devices we all have that are causing us to pay less attention to the roads,” Jeff Larason, director of the Highway Safety Division, said Monday. “It’s an addiction.”
In 2015, 3,477 people were killed nationally in distraction-affected crashes — an almost 9-percent uptick from the previous year.
And it’s not just drivers and passengers who are affected. Seventy-two pedestrians were killed in Massachusetts in 2015, accounting for 23 percent of the state’s traffic fatalities — far more than the national rate of 15 percent, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
For Larason, this too can be at least partially explained by distracted driving.
“When they regain situational awareness, the first thing they’re going to see is cars. The last thing they’re going to see is pedestrians and bicyclists,” Larason said of drivers distracted by their phones or other technology.
Of course, smartphones and increasingly sophisticated dashboards have been around for years. Larason concedes that other factors like more drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists on the roads could have contributed to the recent increase.
But according to the NHTSA, human factors contributed to the majority of crashes in 2015, and Larason believes drivers’ increasing dependence on their devices plays a large part in that story.
“We’re in a different circumstance than we were one year ago,” he said, noting that everyone from ordinary citizens to the president now uses social media to share and consume news. “It’s endemic in our society.”
To combat those realities, Larason’s office is focusing on the two aspects he says are in his power to affect — awareness and enforcement. The Highway Safety Division is launching a new educational advertising campaign, and also has continued to disburse grants to local law enforcement in communities with high crash rates.
The grants are part of the Sustained Traffic Enforcement Program, and this year have been awarded to eight Hampshire County police departments in need of the extra help, Larason said. Police departments in Belchertown, Easthampton, Granby, Hadley, Northampton, South Hadley and Ware have been awarded $10,000 through the program, and Amherst police received $12,000.
That money is meant to cover overtime pay for data-driven, high-visibility enforcement as part of national enforcement campaigns like “Click It or Ticket” and “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over,” as well as the more recent distracted driving campaign launched in the last several years.
What that enforcement looks like on the local level is police signing up to work as partners in places like downtown Northampton, one spotting drivers doing things like texting at a stoplight and another pulling them over.
“It’s difficult without this type of grant,” Capt. John Cartledge of the Northampton Police Department said. “This is definitely easier with a partner.”
Massachusetts law bans texting and driving, and entirely prohibits novice drivers from using cellphones. But the state's laws do allow drivers to talk on their cellphones, unlike stricter laws in neighboring states such as Vermont and Connecticut, which ban hand-held cellphone use outright.
In addition to grants aimed at enforcement, Belchertown, Hadley, Northampton, South Hadley and Ware will also be receiving $2,000 each to provide low-income families and caretakers with car seats as part of the Child Passenger Safety Equipment program.
Some of those same departments were also awarded Underage Alcohol Enforcement grants and Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety grants last fiscal year, but those funds have yet to be awarded for fiscal year 2017.
On the educational level, the Highway Safety Division’s ad campaign will be focused on a strategy previously used in successful campaigns against drunken driving.
Instead of providing a “no” message, Larason said, the ads will warn of the risks of distracted driving.
The effort begins in April, which has been designated “Distracted Driving Awareness Month.”
But despite the endeavors to fight against distracted driving, Larason said he projects that it will only get worse in years to come, and that current numbers may not even reflect the full gravity of the situation.
Dusty Christensen can be reached at email@example.com