Texting Behind the Wheel: Action Taken in Distracted Driving Debate

At the conclusion of the Department of Transportation's Distracted Driving Summit, Treasury Secretary Ray LaHood announced Thursday that the White House signed an executive order to ban federal employees from text messaging while behind the wheel while on government business, in federal vehicles or when using government equipment.

As first reported by ABC News, the White House played off the summit, signing the order Wednesday evening in what the secretary called a "big deal."

VIDEO: How Do You Stop Texting and Driving? Play

"This order sends a very clear signal to the American public that distracted driving is dangerous and unacceptable," LaHood told the 300 people gathered at the event and the thousands watching via webcast at home." It shows that the federal government is leading by example. This is a very big deal."

The administration made public the executive order on Thursday, which stated that given the government's nearly 3 million civilian employees, it is its duty to "demonstrate leadership in reducing the dangers of text messaging while driving."

"A Federal Government-wide prohibition on the use of text messaging while driving on official business or while using Government-supplied equipment will help save lives, reduce injuries, and set an example for State and local governments, private employers, and individual drivers," read the release from the White House.

The second and final day of the conference focused on the role of legislative and regulatory approaches in mitigating distracted driving, as well as how to effectively alert the public of the issue's significance. Reggie Shaw, who killed two people while tapping out a text message from behind the wheel of his moving car, shared his story with the audience today and stated his strong believe that there should be a law against texting and driving.

"Getting teens to stop doing this, I think it's important that there's laws in place so they understand that this is a serious matter," Shaw said, telling the audience that he killed two men in 2006 when he was 19, and was in prison for a month as a result.

"I thought it was safe. I thought it was something I could do, that I could drive down the road and send a text and be safe," said Shaw appearing in a Utah public service announcement.

Action on the Legislative Level

Members of Congress took the stage on Thursday to help bring attention to the controversial issue and reinforce that driving is a privilege and should be treated with responsibility.

"I'm completely amazed that anyone believes that it is a reasonable idea to take your eyes off of the road, look down and type a message while driving in traffic," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., on Thursday. "The time has come to act before it is too late, before more lives are lost and we look back with regret that we did nothing in the face of imminent danger."

Many States Move to Enact Laws

While motor vehicle laws are under state jurisdiction, Menendez, along with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., are attempting to address the problem of cell phone use behind the wheel. The senators are sponsoring the Alert Drivers Act which was first unveiled this summer. The bill would require states to ban anyone from texting or e-mailing while operating a moving vehicle. The legislation on the table would withhold 25 percent of federal highway funding from states that fail to comply with the policy.

"It's not enough to support the concept of a ban, we need a ban that comes with consequences for the states that don't act," Schumer told the audience.

While many state legislators at the summit Thursday applauded the federal effort for a nationwide ban on texting while driving, some worried it may set back some of their efforts on the local level.

"If you say the words federal mandate in Arizona, they will reach for their gun," joked Rep. Steve Farley, Democratic state senator of Arizona, stating his concern about the government getting involved.

Others suggested the best role for the federal government may be in regulating research and providing incentives to the private sector to quickly develop technology designed to mitigate distracted driving.

Victims of Distracted Driving Crashes Call for Action

While the summit was composed of various transportation agencies, safety experts and technology gurus, arguably the most compelling moments came during testimony from those personally effected by distracted driving.

Greg Zaffke of Chicago lost his mother in a distracted driving accident in May when she was hit from behind by a vehicle traveling at 50 mph. The driver was painting her nails at the time of the accident. In a symbol of his outrage at the incident and to help raise awareness against distracted driving, Zaffke began painting his nails black on one hand.

"Distracted drivers destroy lives. Think and drive or people die," Zaffke said through emotion during a press conference at the summit Wednesday. "I'll forever have nightmares about the last moments of my mother's life."

Zaffke stressed the need for stricter punishment for offenders of distracted driving.

"Many of them are traffic tickets for someone's life," he protested. "That needs to be changed."

Dave and Trudy Teater lost their 12-year old son Joe in 2004, to a driver who was talking on a cellphone and are now activists for enacting a ban on texting while behind the wheel.

"He was just the life blood and spark plug of our family," DaveTeater who is now a spokesperson for the National Safety Council, said. "It's our hope that we can prevent others from doing the same thing."

Changing the Law One State at a Time

To date 18 states and the District of Columbia have taken action to prohibit texting for all drivers. http://www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/cellphone_laws.html Maryland is the latest state to join the bandwagon. Beginning today, people who text while driving, will be fined as much as $500. While the law prohibits sending messages, many are concerned that it does not address other forms of distracted driving, such as reading, eating or even using Facebook.

Due in part to Shaw's efforts to spread the message about the danger of distracted driving, Utah has the toughest texting-while-driving law on the books. A driver in Utah can receive up to 15 years in prison if he or she causes injury or death while texting and driving.

Some state legislatures have responded to the growing concern by banning hand-held cell phones, while others have chosen to single out a specific demographic, such as commercial drivers, or teenagers, and implement restrictions.

Research Sheds Light on Controversy

Numbers released Wednesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed that drivers younger than 20 are the worst offenders of using electronic devices while driving, but it's a growing trend among all ages. In 2008, drivers who weren't paying attention took nearly 6,000 lives and caused half a million injuries.

"Driving while distracted should just feel wrong — just as driving without a seat belt or driving while intoxicated," LaHood said in his remarks wrapping up the conference.

In many areas of highway safety, the best countermeasure is the law. The issue with cell phones and texting is having laws that carry a consequence for the driver and are enforceable. Enforcing a ban on hands-free devices is tricky, at best.

"We're not going to break everyone of their bad habits," LaHood conceded to the crowd, "but we are going to raise awareness and sharpen the consequences."