It's legal in North Carolina to talk on your cellphone while you drive, but the N.C. Department of Transportation doesn't want you to do it.
NCDOT has teamed up with the insurance company Geico to erect signs along highways urging people to pull in to public rest areas to call, text or surf the web. At a rest area off Interstate 40 near Benson on Wednesday, state officials unveiled blue highway signs promoting "safe phone zones" that will be erected a mile or two before all 58 state rest areas in North Carolina.
The legislature made it illegal to text and drive in 2009; teens under age 18 and bus drivers are also barred by law from talking on a cellphone while they're driving.
Subsequent efforts to follow states such as Maryland and West Virginia and ban the use of hand-held phones for all drivers have failed in the General Assembly. But that hasn't stopped state officials from speaking out against the practice.
Tim Little, the chief engineer for NCDOT, said distracted driving played a role in crashes that killed 152 people and seriously injured 25,000 more in North Carolina last year. Little said that doesn't include the countless near-misses caused by someone paying attention to their phone instead of the road.
The insurance industry has gotten involved in efforts to discourage drivers from using their phones behind the wheel, in part out of self-interest; the rate of highway accidents and fatalities has risen nationwide in recent years after decades of decline. Last fall, The Travelers Companies used a forum at N.C. State University to launch a national campaign targeting distracted driving called Every Second Matters.
Geico has begun sponsoring "safe phone zones" at rest areas in states around the country, starting in Virginia, said John Pham, the company's regional vice president. The company would like to have similar signs up at rest areas in all 50 states, Pham said.
"This is an epidemic that is really causing a lot of problems," he said.
Geico is paying to have its name on the safe phone zone signs, and the money will help NCDOT maintain its rest areas. The company has committed to $225,000 a year for the next two years.
"It's a reasonable fee that we're happy to pay," Pham said.