LaHood: More info needed on distracted driving

By CHRISTOPHER WILLS | June 9, 2011 | 11:30 PM EDT

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood applauded car companies Thursday for beginning to fight an "epidemic" of distracted driving and said he's waiting for a study on the problem before discussing whether the government should regulate communications technology built directly into vehicles.

"We are data-based. Our credibility comes from having good data," LaHood said. "If we have good data, then we can make a case."

LaHood has waged a campaign to discourage people from sending emails and making phone calls while driving. He praised Subaru for spending millions to air public-service ads warning about the dangers and said BMW has now produced a similar ad.

But LaHood did not join the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in questioning the safety of building communications tools directly into cars, making it easier for drivers to do other things. The head of the administration, David Strickland, said earlier in the day that was putting the auto industry on notice that safety matters more than quick connections to Facebook and Twitter, the Detroit Free Press reported.

LaHood said a study is under way to quantify the dangers of texting or making calls while driving. Any discussion of regulating built-in communications technology must wait until those results are available later this year, he said.

"Is messing with your GPS a cognitive distraction? Is changing the channel on the radio a cognitive distraction?" LaHood said. "We're looking at that now."

LaHood, speaking to a meeting of the Illinois Associated Press Editors Association, said he has spoken to the head of every car company and told them to take action against distracted driving.

"You figure out how you can be helpful to us," LaHood said he told them.

He compared the fight against distracted driving to the early stages of discouraging drunken driving and promoting the use of safety belts.