Obama's Transportation Secretary Would Make Text-Messaging While Driving a Federal Offense

By Edwin Mora | August 4, 2009 | 7:39 PM EDT

Washington (CNSNews.com) – If it were up to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, text-messaging while driving would be a federal offense.
"It it were up to me, I would ban drivers from texting, immediately,” LaHood said Tuesday at a Transportation Department press briefing.
“But we've learned from our efforts to get people to wear seat belts and to persuade people not to drink and drive that laws aren't always enough. Often you need to combine education with enforcement to get results."
So LaHood plans to hold a September summit where academic experts, state and federal transportation officials and lawmakers will be invited to discuss measures to keep drivers from texting, talking on the phone -- and even using some global positioning saystems (GPS) systems while driving.
LaHood is calling for a plan that is modeled after the national “0.08 maximum blood alcohol level” anti-drunk driving campaign and the national “click it or ticket” campaign, which stresses wearing a seatbelt on everyone in a moving car.
“This (driving distracted) is a huge problem in America and we have learned that the model for solving problems like this is 0.08 and the way that’s been implemented and also click it or tick it,” LaHood said.
Traffic laws are the province of the states, and LaHood wouldn’t say whether the Obama administration would propose national legislation that is in accordance with the model that he is suggesting, saying that it will depend on the outcome of the September gathering.
“I’m not going to prejudge what our summit will do,” LaHood explained. “I’m against texting and I’ve already told you what my prejudice is here, I’ve already said what I would do, but we’re going to have a summit and from that.”
LaHood would not specify exactly who will be attending the summit.
“Members of Congress will be invited and from that summit we will have, I believe, recommendations to Congress, to stakeholders, to the American people,” he added. “I think a lot will come of it.”
LaHood spokeswoman Jill Zuckman told CNSNews.com “Nothing has been planned” with regard to whether the federal government would deal directly with distracted drivers or if it would be left up to the states.
She indicated that national legislation is only one aspect that would be discussed during the summit.
Meanwhile, the transportation secretary indicated that individuals who oppose a ban on texting and using cell phones behind the wheel will also be invited to the summit.
In fact, he acknowledged that some state officials have expressed concern about the difficulty of enforcing a standard that bans individuals from texting and using cell phones while driving.
“I will say this, the majority of Americans want to make sure when they get into their automobile and they’re driving down the road the other person who is coming at them is not distracted,” he said.

“We know these distractions cause accidents, cause death, cause brain injury so we’ll invite the folks who may have a different point of view, hopefully we can persuade them,” he added.
LaHood said the American people are fed up with distracted drivers -- just as they were with drunk drivers.
“My idea here is that we have two very good programs in place that came as a result of good research, and good information from people, and the fact that the public is sick and tired of people being distracted and causing accidents,” said LaHood.
“People in America got fed up with their children and loved ones being killed by drunk drivers and people in America are very tired of the idea that people can text and drive and use cell phones and drive in some states,” he added.  
According to statistics from the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit self designated “states’ voice on highway safety,” there are six states, in addition to the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, that already ban the use of hand held phones for all drivers.
Additionally, the association said that D.C. and 16 states ban text messaging for everyone who is driving.
Furthermore, eight states have laws that prohibit local jurisdictions from enacting restrictions, the association said, and in 6 other states, localities are allowed to ban cell phone use.
With regard to global positioning satellite (GPS) systems, LaHood explained that he is only concerned if its use disrupts an individual’s driving.
“We’re primarily focusing our attention on drivers that are texting, using cell phones, and also trying to adjust their GPS system in their car, if, you know, they’re able to do that, if the car allows them to do that,” said LaHood.
During the briefing, the secretary promised reporters statistics highlighting the seriousness of distracted drivers, but was unable to verbally give any concrete numbers.
“We’ve done some research, but we want to involve more stakeholders in our research,” said LaHood. “We’re really stepping up our research program here at DOT I think that will be reflected in our 2011 budget. We know that research can give us a lot of answers to positions that we deal with.”
According to the University of Utah, the reaction of those who use their cell phones while driving, whether it be hands held or hands free, is the same as someone under a 0.08 BAC.
In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an arm of the DOT, and Virginia Tech reveal that the primary source of driver distractions is the use of a wireless device.
The NHTSA along with the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, a non-profit researcher funded by auto insurers, also reveal that individuals who use their cell phones while driving are four times as likely to get into crucial crashes.