Sept. 29, 2009— -- 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.
Safety Advocates Call for Action
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.
"I speak from my heart when I say that just one loss is dramatically life changing and not worth wasting one moment of debate about whether or not to adopt a policy that will protect our children and keep our families whole," said Schee through tears, explaining how her daughter was killed when a tractor trailer driver who was using a cell phone, hit the back of her daughter's school bus, which then caught fire, trapping Margay inside. "What happened to Margay was not an isolated incident these tragedies are increasingly occurring on our nation's roadways and they are preventable."
One solution to the problem could come in the form of technology. As the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) says, technology created the problem, but it can also be part of the solution. Systems are being developed that can disengage a cell phone while the driver is driving, but the problem with these solutions is that they are voluntary.
Changing the Law One State at a Time
State legislatures are responsible for deciding whether to prohibit texting while behind the wheel, and thus far, 18 states and the District of Columbia have taken action. Maryland is the latest state to join the bandwagon, on Oct. 1, a law that bans texting while driving will go into effect there, slapping violators with a fine of 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 applications such as Facebook.
Utah has the toughest texting while driving law on the books. The state enacted the measure after an accident in which two men were killed by a teen driver who was texting. Now 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 handheld cell phones only, while others have chosen to single out a specific demographic, such as commercial drivers, or teenagers, and implement restrictions.
Officials Hope for Legislative Fix
Efforts to make distracted driving federally regulated emerged in Congress this summer. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Mary Landrieu, D-La. and Kay Hagan, D-N.C. unveiled legislation in July that would require states to ban anyone from texting or e-mailing while operating a moving vehicle. If the bill passes, states that fail to comply with the new law within six months would risk losing federal highway funds.
"The states have been moving in the direction of passing laws concerning passenger vehicles, but there's a patchwork quilt out there," said Gillan. "It's a cognitive problem...whether its hands free or hand held, again, distraction is distraction."
Despite widespread studies, many believe these laws are difficult to enforce and say they won't fix the problem. The panel on Thursday will delve into these regulatory and enforcement obstacles posed by distracted driving with presentations from various members of state legislatures as well as a representative from the Federal Transit Administration will participate. The issue of public awareness of the safety issues will also be addressed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, National Organizations for Youth Safety and Seventeen Magazine among other guests.