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West Virginia University will get more than $182,000 in federal research funding to study distracted driving laws and their impact on crash rates of younger drivers, according to two senators out of West Virginia who are behind the funding effort.

Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin said distracted driving has become a crisis on the nation’s roads. The lawmakers’ home state of West Virginia made “strides” in curbing the problem last year when the state passed a ban on texting behind the wheel, Rockefeller said in a statement.

Currently, texting bans are the most common form of anti-distracted driving laws; all drivers are prohibited from texting while driving in 39 states.

In 10 states, all drivers are barred from talking on a hand-held phone.

New drivers are restricted from cell phone use in 33 states.

Young Drivers the Focus of Research

The grant monies will leverage use of research facilities at the college, which Manchin called “truly some of the best in this nation,” to explore the impact and enforcement of laws for calling and texting while behind the wheel. Researchers will also delve into crash rates of drivers under 25 years old, according to the release.

Research typically focuses on this age group because previous findings identified strong links between distracted driving and new drivers.

According to federal research, more than 1 out of every 10 drivers who are killed in crashes and under 20 years old are reportedly distracted, the largest proportion of any age group.

Such research showing younger drivers’ risky behaviors while driving is also a reason that insurers charge more for policies covering their vehicles. Teenage car insurance coverage is usually higher because that teenager is a higher risk for accidents and, ultimately, more claims. Bringing the fact that younger drivers are more susceptible to talking on their cell phone, texting, changing songs on their MP3 players or even “webbing” while driving, and any consumer can see why that age group sees higher prices for insurance.

Anti-Distracted Driving Efforts Have Seen Progress, Setbacks

Rockfeller introduced a federal Senate bill in 2009 called the Distracted Driving Prevention Act that would have established research funds, education programs and other federal provisions related to distracted driving, including requiring that law enforcement agents across the U.S. who investigate crashes record whether or not mobile devices were involved. That bill eventually stalled in a Senate committee in 2010.

But 2012 saw many major developments in favor of the nation’s battle against distracted driving.

The Department of Transportation released its “Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving” in the summer, offering proposals of legislative action that states could take against distracted driving.

Also during the summer, bipartisan support from legislators like Rockefeller pushed a federal omnibus transportation bill through Congress. Rockefeller said that Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) incorporates “the key provisions” of his failed 2009 legislation and it would go far in helping the nation as it “tackles the distracted driving epidemic” with public outreach and research funding efforts.

Still, it hasn’t been a completely smooth road for safety advocates.

New preliminary data on traffic deaths in 2012 show a significant uptick in fatalities for the first three quarters of the year, a reversal of downward trends that had persisted for years.

In 2011, the total number of roadway fatalities fell to record lows, according to the NHTSA, but those related to distracted driving rose by nearly 2 percent.

A report released this week from the Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety said several states were falling “dangerously behind” others in their traffic safety laws and how they are enforced.

And aside from government efforts to combat distracted driving, the biggest problem may lie with the drivers themselves, who have shown stubbornly strong attachments to their electronic devices inside the car.

A survey commissioned by insurer State Farm last year showed that the rate of drivers who “web” while behind the wheel is increasing, especially for younger drivers. In fact, the survey found that drivers under 30 years old had higher distracted driving rates than in 2009.

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