How do you keep drivers from texting or talking on cell phones while driving? Following a number of deadly crashes this year, the Department of Transportation will address that issue as part of its Distracted Driving Summit which kicks off on Wednesday. The two-day conference will examine the results of experimental research, collision studies and reporting across the industry to determine the effect of technology on transportation and how to remedy distracted driving.
"We need to raise public awareness that texting is a bad thing to do while you're driving, whether you're driving a school bus, a transit bus, a train, or your own car," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told ABC News in an interview today.
Tune in to ABC's "World News with Charles Gibson" tonight for an examination of the dangers of texting while driving
LaHood said if it were his decision, he would ensure that every electronic message sent while driving would be a crime.
"If I could wave a magic wand, I would eliminate it, but I don't have that magic wand, it would take a law," LaHood told ABCNews. "We actually have four U.S. Senators speaking at our conference, our summit, in the next day and a half, and that really begins the process for getting Congress on board to pass laws."
The question then is will the summit put pressure on states to step up enforcement of existing laws or perhaps implement tougher new laws? Auto safety experts say the science is clear: talking on the phone, texting, anything that takes your attention from the road, is dangerous. In many areas of highway safety, the best counter measure 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.
"Three years ago NTSB recommended that DOT ban cell phone use in drivers…Nothing has been done, it's now time for DOT to take immediate action," said Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety during a press conference last week. "We shouldn't have to wait for more deaths and injuries on our roads."
A July study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that truck drivers who text are 23 times more likely to crash than those who don't. Further evidence of distraction is highlighted in a Department of Transportation study that suggests one in four reported crashes show distraction was a factor in the accident.
"It's not possible to drive safely while you're texting," said the secretary. "It just simply is not because your attention is drawn away from driving a vehicle."
Recent studies have added fuel to the cause of safety advocates, last week spurring Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety to roll out a petition requesting the Department of Transportation regulate the use of electronic devices by commercial motor vehicle operators in the United States.
Elissa Schee, the mother of 13-year-old Frances "Margay" Schee who died in a Florida car accident one year ago, spoke in favor of the petition keeping commercial drivers off of cell phones while on the road.