FAIRFIELD — Town leaders, law enforcement and traffic safety experts are teaming up during April to emphasize a no tolerance “Distracted Driving Awareness” initiative called “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.”

The Distracted Driving Awareness program kicked off at Fairfield police headquarters Monday as State Senator Tony Hwang led the initiative with support from First Selectman Mike Tetreau, Police Chief Chris Lyddy, police officers and traffic safety advocates. Related data was presented by Neil K. Chaudhary, CEO of Preusser Research Group, Inc.; and Fran Mayko, AAA Northeast spokeswoman.

“Most of us are guilty of distracted driving because we naively think nothing dangerous will happen to us,” said Hwang. “When you are not paying full attention to the road in front of you, there is a highly increased chance that you will have an accident as a result of either your own actions or the actions by another you are unable to avoid.

“All that it takes is a fraction of a second for tragedy to occur,” said Hwang. “We need to take this just as seriously as drunk and buzzed driving because they can lead to the same dangerous result. We encourage everyone to keep two hands on the wheel and two eyes on the road. Your phone and other distractions can wait.”

AAA says mental distractions last much longer than you think. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, in groundbreaking research, has found hands-free interactions can distract drivers for as long as 27 seconds after a conversation ends. At 25 mph, a driver can cover the length of three football fields during that time.

“Any activity that takes your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel or your attention from the task of driving presents a risk,” said Mayko. “What most folks don’t realize is that hands-free electronics are no safer than hand-held devices despite the amount of research done on this topic.”

“This is very important, driving is serious business and April is a month dedicated to raising awareness,” said Tetreau. “Distracted driving puts our citizens at risk as we are trying to encourage more walking and more biking, getting people out of cars; we need the people in the cars to be more conscious of what’s taking place. We encourage walking all over town. We are asking all of our residents, all of our citizens to do the right thing, be safe, and pay attention when you’re driving.”

“We are here at the Fairfield Police Department because law enforcement is an integral part of this awareness,” said Hwang. “If you are caught in distracted driving, your first offence is $150, your second offense is $300 and your third offense is $500.”

Chief Lyddy thanked Hwang for this initiative and said, “In 2017 across America, 3,177 people lost their lives directly related to distracted driving so in the month of April, operating on a federal highway safety grant, our Traffic Enforcement Unit will be out there enforcing the distracted driving laws that exist. We started our efforts this morning and in three hours, we issued 65 infractions in the Town of Fairfield for distracted driving. That message is loud and clear that we have a lot of work to do in front of us, we will be out there every single day during the month of April, sending that message through enforcement of our laws.”

Chaudhary said, “We have seen rates of distracted driving increasing over time, we also have seen how people are distracted change over time. Specifically, the predominant observed behavior was hand-held cell phone use or talking on a phone while driving. In more recent years however, we have seen a shift toward texting while driving.”

He noted that Connecticut laws are among the strongest in the nation yet despite them, and with police enforcement efforts, there has not been a sustained decline in distracted driving. “Our recent work with the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety Office has shown that while cell phone use can be lowered through high visibility enforcement, the rates return to baseline after heavy enforcement is taken away.” Among top concerns of distracted driving are the risks to school aged children near school bus stops and schools.

“There is a lot that people may not understand in terms of why distracted driving is so dangerous. Some people believe they can divide their attention effectively between driving and secondary tasks, but they are wrong,” said Chaudhary. “It is my hope that the information shared at the forums from various sources will help educate and reduce distracted driving.”

“Distracted driving is real and all it takes is a fraction of a second for a tragedy to occur,” added Hwang. “Put the phone down.” A forum on the issue will be held at the Pequot Library, 720 Pequot Avenue, in Southport on April 30 at 6:30 p.m. Hwang, Officials, AAA representatives, law enforcement and traffic advocates will participate, and the public is encouraged to attend.