Summit calls for reduction in distracted driving
WASHINGTON — Making sure drivers keep their eyes on the road will require a network of tough laws, enforcement by police and personal responsibility, the government said Tuesday.
Obama administration officials said during a second summit on distracted driving that it had made progress in pushing states to target drivers who send text messages and use mobile devices from the road, but too many people are being killed because of inattentive motorists.
“Every time someone takes their focus off the road — even if it’s just for a moment — they put their lives and the lives of others in danger,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Thirty states and the District of Columbia prohibit drivers from texting behind the wheel; eight states have passed laws barring drivers from using handheld cell phones. Nearly 5,500 people were killed last year in distracted driving crashes.
The summit brought together government leaders, safety advocates, family members of victims and business groups to discuss ways of reducing distracted driving.
“Our lives have been changed forever. In place of joy and laughter, there is sorrow and tears,” said Russell Hurd, of Abingdon, Md.
Hurd’s daughter, Heather, was killed in January 2008 when a tractor trailer plowed into nine vehicles at a traffic light in Orlando, Fla. Heather Hurd and her fiance were driving to meet their wedding planner at Walt Disney World.
LaHood suggested the technology industry could place warning labels — “the way we put warning labels on cigarettes” — on the boxes of mobile phones urging consumers not to use the devices while driving.
The Transportation secretary noted that automakers were adding in-vehicle technology that allows drivers to update their Facebook page, surf the Internet “or do any number of other things instead of driving safely.”
“Features that pull drivers’ hands, eyes and attention away from the road are distractions,” said LaHood. He told reporters the technology could create a “cognitive distraction” and he would meet with auto companies to develop new safety guidelines for technology in vehicles.
Ford Motor Co. has marketed its in-car entertainment and communication service, known as Sync, and General Motors Co. recently announced plans to give its OnStar safety system better voice recognition so drivers could verbally connect with the Internet.
Automakers have said voice-activated systems are safer for drivers than trying to manipulate applications on their mobile devices.
Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said making driving safer will mean balancing “the fact that we know drivers will do certain things while driving and how technology can make it safer.”
As part of the summit, the Transportation Department proposed barring truck drivers from sending text messages while hauling hazardous materials. The proposal would close a loophole for hazardous material haulers not covered by separate rules being finalized that prohibit commercial bus and truck drivers from sending text messages on the job.
The department also wrapped up rules restrict train operators from using cell phones and mobile devices on duty.
LaHood has pushed states to adopt tougher laws against sending text messages from behind the wheel and the federal government has prohibited federal employees from texting while driving on government business.
Safety advocates are trying to replicate the success of campaigns in the 1980s that helped reduce drunken driving deaths and increased the use of seat belts.
The summit highlighted efforts by corporations to prevent employees from using mobile devices while driving on company business.
LaHood said nearly 1,600 U.S. companies and organizations have adopted policies related to distracted driving, covering about 10.5 million workers. Another 550 organizations, covering an additional 1.5 million workers, have pledged to create anti-distracted driving policies for their employees within the next year.
The federal agency also announced interim results of police crackdowns in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y., to enforce cell phone bans.
During two weeks of extra enforcement, police in Hartford wrote nearly 5,000 tickets and Syracuse authorities issued nearly 4,500 tickets for drivers talking or texting on cell phones. Government surveys and observations of drivers conducted during the enforcement waves found declines in cell phone use and texting behind the wheel.
Legislation is pending in Congress to push all states to ban texting by drivers. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she was hopeful the Senate would consider the measure before the end of 2010.