Texting While Driving: Transportation Secretary Advocates Ban

Ray LaHood says he'd prohibit practice "if it were up to me."

ByKate Barrett
August 04, 2009, 9:05 AM

Aug. 4, 2009— -- If it were his decision, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood would ensure that every text message and Blackberry e-mail you send from behind the wheel would be a crime.

"If it were up to me, I would ban drivers from texting immediately," LaHood said today in a news conference on the dangerous combo of driving and texting.

But it's not up to LaHood. State legislatures are responsible for deciding whether to prohibit texting while driving, and thus far several states have done just that: On Friday, New Hampshire and Oregon became the 15th and 16th states to prohibit the practice.

"Regardless of the law, texting and driving should not mix. We need to restore some common sense to driving," Barbara Harsha, the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said in the July 31 statement announcing the state bans.

The New Hampshire and Oregon laws take effect in January of next year, with New Hampshire's law also specifying that typing on a laptop or any other device is also illegal while driving. In addition to state texting laws, five states and the District of Columbia have also decided that drivers can use cell phones in transit if, and only if, they use a hands-free device to carry on the conversation.

This morning LaHood announced a September summit to examine various options on how to remedy distracted driving. Transportation officials, law enforcement and members of Congress will be among those who gather for the Transportation Department's meeting on texting while driving.

"When we are done, I expect to have a list of concrete steps to announce," LaHood said.

The summit plan comes as more and more information about the dangers of electronic distractions while driving spur lawmakers to take action.

A July 27 study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute focused on long-haul truck drivers, finding that drivers who text are 23 times more likely to crash than those who don't.

And documents released earlier last month by Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety revealed that documents from the Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration charged that the government has not been up front for six years about driving distractions caused by cell phones.

The death of a teen this summer who was texting while driving in LaHood's hometown illustrates the problem, and several other accidents have impacted people around the country:

Last week, the distracted driver of a tow truck injured two people in Western New York while texting and chatting.

More than 60 people were injured in Boston on May 8 when two trolleys collided shortly after the a trolley operator sent a text message to his girlfriend.

In September 2008, 25 commuters died and another 135 were hurt on a train in Southern California -- including the operator, who sent 29 text messages on the day of the crash.

Officials Hope For Concrete Steps to Curb Texting While Driving

Despite all the examples of inherent danger, some say even laws won't be enough to help people kick the habit.

"We want to figure out how to solve the problem of texting while behind the wheel beyond a simple ban, which often doesn't work," said Transportation Department spokeswoman Jill Zuchman. "Our experience getting people to wear seatbelts or to stop driving while drunk has shown you need both law enforcement and you need education."

Studies have also revealed other hazards related to cell phone use -- whether due to kids using a phone in the crosswalk or people talking while ambling down the street.

The government documents released July 21 suggest it doesn't matter whether commuters are holding their cell phones in hand or not: Data shows chatting while driving slows reaction time -- a finding consumer groups now say the government never stressed at the expense of people's lives.

Data from the government's 2003 document also showed that there's a 38 percent increase of accident risk for cell phone users. It revealed that drivers made more the 200 million in-car calls each day at that time.

"What the government knew is that talking and driving is just as bad as drinking and driving," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, told ABC News July 21.

"It doesn't matter whether it's handheld or hands-free," he added. "It's the distraction of talking to someone else, the conversation itself that causes the inattention that leads to crashes, deaths, and injuries."

At that time, Dr. Jeffrey Runge, NHTSA administrator when the studies were done, told ABC News that the previous administration was not trying to bury the data. He said other priorities at the time took precedent, adding that officials did not mount a full force campaign to publicize the cell phone studies.

Meantime, the government did warn that using a cell phone while driving can be dangerous.

On its Web site, NHTSA states that, "The safest course of action is to refrain from using a cell phone while driving."

ABC News' Ann Compton, Lisa Stark and Matt Hosford contributed to this report.

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